“The Canal” (1927) by Everil Worrell

In the new issue I found more good stuff than usual. “The Canal” is truly fine—real terror woven into the inmost atmosphere—& “Bells of Oceana” comes close to packing a genuine kick.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 4 Nov 1927, Essential Solitude 1.113

“The Canal” by Everil Worell was first published in Weird Tales December 1927, which is where Lovecraft read it. This was Worrell’s fourth published story in Weird Tales; she would publish 19 in the magazine between 1926 and 1954, when the pulp ceased publication, being one of the prolific women weird talers who made their mark on the magazine. Lovecraft wasn’t keen on every story Worrell wrote…but “The Canal” was special, and Lovecraft repeatedly listed it among the best stories ever published by Weird Tales:

Looking over the whole contents of W.T., one’s final impression is that of a devastating desert of crudity & mediocrity, relieved by a very few oases. The high spots that impress me are Suter’s “Beyond the Door”, Humphrey’s “The Floor Above”, Arnold’s “The Night Wire”, Worrell’s “The Canal”, Burks’ “Bells of Oceana”, & Leahy’s “In Amundsen’s Tent”. Those things have the atmosphere & suggestion which spell power.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 18 Feb 1930, Essential Solitude 1.247

As for my favourite W.T. authors—it would be hard to make a list. The very best tales have been written by persons not at all well known. In my opinion, the relaly high spots run something like this:

Beyond the Door___________Paul Suter
The Floor Above___________M. Humphreys
The Night Wire____________H. F. Arnold
In Amundsen’s Tent_________John Martin Leahy
The Canal________________Everil Worrill [sic]
Bells of Oceana____________Arthur J. Burks
Passing of a God___________Henry S. Whitehead

[…] W0rrill [sic] is good in the main, but has produced some fearsome trash.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 19 Jun 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 18-19

Yes—”The Canal” is great stuff. I once cited it as one of the 6 best stories WT ever printed—the other 5 being “Beyond the Door”, “The Floor Above”, “In Amundsen’s Tent”, “The Night Wire”, & “Bells of Oceana.” The author is a woman, & has written other stuff—some very poor (“Light Echoes”) & some distinctly good (“the Bird of Space”).
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 22 Dec 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 247-248

Lovecraft wasn’t originally aware of Worrell’s gender, and refers to her as “he” in his correspondence until 1930, when he received a bit of news:

[Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales] adds that Everil Worrell (who turns out to be a woman) is about to become associate editor of W.T. & Oriental Tales.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 242 (cf. ES 1.281)

Oriental Stories was a new magazine produced by Popular Fiction Publishing the publishers of Weird Tales and edited by Farnsworth Wright, with the first issue appearing in Oct-Nov 1930; Wright also wanted to bring out a third magazine titled Strange Stories, but a dispute regarding the name hung up production and SS was eventually abandoned. Lovecraft was positive about the idea of Worrell as associate editor, based solely on her fiction—and that mainly “The Canal”:

I hope that the co-editorship of Everil Worrell, whose “Canal” shewed a genuine comprehension of the principles of weirdness, will cause some slight improvement in the magazine’s principles of selection.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 246

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Oriental Stories by itself was a strain on Popular Fiction Publishing’s resources, with Weird Tales having to go bimonthly for three issues in 1931 to help keep Oriental Stories afloat. Whether the financial strain couldn’t support an associate editor, or Wright didn’t need an associate editor because the magazines went bimonthly, or Worrell chose not to accept the position—she did not join the Popular Fiction Publishing editorial staff.

What was it about “The Canal” that attracted Lovecraft’s undying appreciation? The protagonist is coincidentally very Lovecraftian, with a love of nocturnal walks and strange places and an appreciation of odd beauty. So too, some of the philosophical themes, such as the loss of freedom that an office job would require, might have struck a chord. The premise of the plot—quite literally love at first sight—is not at all the usual kind of story that Lovecraft enjoyed. But as with “Shambleau” (1933) by C. L. Moore and “Black God’s Kiss” (1934) by C. L. Moore, Lovecraft could appreciate sudden and sensual attachments if the story had a truly weird element, carefully told with the appropriate atmosphere. Werewolves and vampires were rather conventional horrors that held little interest for Lovecraft, but they had their place in the weird oeuvre, and HPL never said a word against Dracula’s brides in the castle.

Lovecraft’s appreciation for “The Canal” led to a brief but illuminating discussion with another master of the weird tale:

By the way, I have just been re-reading “The Canal”, which you mention. It certainly creates a memorable atmosphere; but the one flaw, to me, is the wholesale dynamiting, which seems to introduce a jarring note among the shadowy supernatural horrors. However, this is just my own reaction. I would have had the narrator simply kill himself, overwhelmed by despair at the irremediable scourge he had loosed, and leave the horror to spread unchecked. However, I shouldn’t be captious: it is the only good vampire story I have ever seen, apart from Gautier’s “Clarimonde” and my own “Rendezvous in Averoigne.” […] It seems to me also that Everil Worrel’s co-editorship should help to counter-balance some of Wright’s dunder-headed decisions; and I shall re-submit Satampra and perhaps also “The Door to Saturn” at some future date.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 24-30 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 254

“The Canal certainly has atmosphere. The final dynamiting—like my dynamiting of the house on Tempest Mountain in “The Lurking Fear”—is probably less subtly handled than it ought to be, yet is in a certain sense necessary as a means of explaining why the whole world hasn’t “gone vampire”. Whenever a fantastic tale introduces a horror which, if unchecked, would shortly produce strikingly visible results throughout the earth, it is necessary to explain why those results have not occurred—necessary, in short, to check the full action of the thing—unless the tale is laid in the future. There is really no way of escaping this dilemma. We must either explain the present survival of the existing order, or choose a remotely future period at which the existing order is assumed to be destroyed. The only adumbration of a middle course open to us is to have the original horror so subtle as to produce only imperceptible effects for a very long period, or to have a partial checking in which the action of the horror is vastly minimised or delayed. In “Dagon” I shewed a horror that may appear, but that has not yet made any effort to do so. In “Cthulhu” I had a coming horror checked by the same convulsion of Nature which produced it. [earthquake-sinking of R’lyeh] In “The Colour Out of Space” I had a partial checking. Just enough of the Outside influence remains in the well to provide a slow, creeping blight. And in “Dunwich” I had full artificial destruction, as in “The Canal”. When one does have full artificial destruction, the important thing is not to make the process too bald, crude, or incongruous with the atmosphere or action of the narrative as a whole. I agree that very few good vampire tales exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 7 Nov 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 261-262

This is a rare case where Lovecraft gives us insight on the craft behind writing his stories, in part because the nature of the ending of “The Canal” caused him to reflect on how he ended his own stories. There is an interesting point of comparison there: when August Derleth reprinted “The Canal” in The Sleeping and the Dead (1947), the story was revised, cutting about 2,000 words and radically changing the ending; the abridged version can be read on Wikisource. The abridged ending is more melancholy and less climactic than the first; the intention of suicide remains, but there is no dynamite, no colony of bat-creatures; it is, in fact, a bit closer to Clark Ashton Smith’s suggested ending.

Lovecraft’s appreciation of “The Canal” did not lessen with the years, and his letters in 1935 give evidence of that when Worrell’s story was reprinted in the January 1935 Weird Tales. His two longest comments to younger Weird Tales fans are succinct:

In the previous issue, the “Canal” reprint was the real feature. Yes—Everill Worrell was said by Wright to belong to the feminine gender. He once considered hiring her as associate editor, but finally decided not to. Viewed collectively, her work was very uneven—descended from the high level of “The Canal” to the unutterable namby-pamby of “Light-Echoes”…rather a Blackwoodian condition. I have seen nothing new of hers in years, & have no idea whether she is dead or alive. But “The Canal” is a landmark in WT history.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11? May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 259

“The Canal” is one of the most powerful tales W.T. ever printed—but I didn’t like “Light Echoes”, which to me suggested the namby-pamby. “The Bird of Space” wasn’t bad. I understand from Wright that Everil Worrell is a woman. He once thought of hiring her as assistant editor, but later decided not to. I don’t know her address, but fancy WT would gladly forward a letter address to her in its care. She ought to be glad to furnish an autograph to one who appreciates her work.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 31 May 1935, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 437

Everil Worrell was not dead, though Lovecraft could be forbidden for thinking so; she published no stories in Weird Tales under her own name after 1931 until 1939, two years after Lovecraft’s own death. Though they never met or corresponded, she was one of Lovecraft’s esteemed peers at Weird Tales.

“The Canal” would go on to be reprinted many times, sometimes in abridged form. Leonard Nimoy in his directing debut provided an adaptation of the story for The Night Gallery titled “Death on a Barge.” The original published text of the story can be read for free online.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Golem (1928) by Gustav Meyrink

Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
⁠—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version),
Collected Essays 2.100

Gustav Meyrink was the pseudonym of Gustav Meyer, an Austrian who had lived in Prague for twenty years as a banker. In the 1890s Meyrink developed an interest in the occult, and became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (and also, briefly, the Theosophical Society). In 1902 he was charged with fraud, which ended his banking career; Meyrink turned his focus to writing and translation, and became especially known for his German-language stories of the supernatural. While not Jewish himself, Meyrink’s close familiarity with Prague, including the Jewish quarter and the occult provided him the ingredients for his greatest novel.

Der Golem was serialized in the German magazine Die Weißen Blätter from December 1913 to August 1914; it was published as a standalone novel in 1915, to immense popularity. The book was eventually translated into English by Madge Pemberton, and The Golem was published in 1928. Of course, H. P. Lovecraft’s first version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published in 1927…so how did he write about Meyrink’s novel?

He watched the film.

The one weird film I did see was “The Golem”, based on a mediaeval ghetto legend of an artificial giant. In this production the settings were semi-futuristic, some of the ancient gabled houses of Prague’s narrow streets being made to look like sinister old men with peaked hats.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 16 Dec 1926, Essential Solitude 1.56

You left out the “Golem” illustration mentioned, but I fancy you may send it later. I wish I could get hold of a copy of the book. I saw a cinema of it in 1923, but never had access to the Meyrink text–although I mentioned it in my article.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, c. 6 Dec 1933, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 92

Der Golem (“The Golem”) was a silent film directed by and starring Paul Wegener with German intertitles released in 1915. The film is now believed to be lost, aside from some fragments. This film was followed by two more: Der Golem und die Tänzerin (“The Golem and the Dancing Girl”) in 1917, and Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (“The Golem: How He Came Into The World”) in 1920, both of which were also directed by and starring Paul Wegener as the golem. So it isn’t clear which film Lovecraft actually saw. The 1920 film survives and is in the public domain.

Lovecraft claimed in most of his letters to have caught a showing of it in 1921, and like many an English student of the VHS era who needed to write a book report, he assumed somewhat erroneously that it was faithful to the plot of the book. However, despite being nominally based on Meyrink’s novel, the book and films share little in common save the Prague setting and the Golem legend—or at least, an interpretation of the original Jewish lore as filtered through several non-Jews. Meyrink’s novel recounts his version of the golem story in brief:

“The original story harks back, so they say, to the sixteenth century. Using long-lost formals from the Kabbala, a rabbi is said to have made an artificial man–the so-called Golem–to help rint the bells in the Synagogue and for all kinds of other menial work.

“But he hadn’t made a full man, and it was animated by a sort of vegetable half-life. What life it had, too, so the story runs, was only derived from a magic charm placed behind its teeth each day, that drew down to itself what was known as the ‘free sidereal strength of the universe.’

“One evening, before evening prayers, the rabbi forgot to take the charm out of the Golem’s mouth, and it fell into a frenzy. It raged through the dark streets, smashing everything in its path, until the rabbi caught up with it, removed the charm, and destroyed it. Then the Golem collapsed, lifeless. All that was left of it was a small clay image, which you can still see in the Old Synagogue.”
—Gustav Meyrink, The Golem  (1985 ed.) 26

The German trilogy of films adapt a similar version of the golem story, in different times and contexts. The 1915 film has an antiques dealer discover the Golem of Prague and revives it to serve him; as in the original legend the Golem eventually goes on a rampage. The 1917 film is a comedy where a man makes himself up as the golem to win love. The 1920 film is essentially a retelling of the Golem of Prague legend, set in the medieval period. None of these make any effort to follow the original Jewish story very closely. Lovecraft, ignorant of Jewish lore as he was, probably had no idea how the film differed from the original Jewish story.

In Meyrink’s novel the Golem never plays an active role—it is a shadowy figure in a novel that is focused on the life of the mentally unstable Athanasius Pernath, as experienced by a nameless narrator; so that the story has something of an avant garde, experimental feel, with some chapters possibly being memories, delusions, or dreams and it is never quite clear what is the reality.

Lovecraft finally got a chance to read The Golem in 1935, when his young friend Robert H. Barlow loaned him a copy of the 1928 English translation. Having finally read it, Lovecraft’s acclaim was immediate:

Lately read Gustav Meyrink’s “The Golem”, lent me by young Barlow. The most magnificent weird thing I’ve struck in aeons! The cinema of the same title which I saw in 1921 was a mere substitute using the empty name—with nothing of the novel in it. What a study in subtle fear, brooding hints of elder magic, & vague driftings to & fro across the borderline betwixt dream & waking! There are no overt monsters or miracles—just symbols & suggestions. As a study in lurking, insidious regional horror it has scarcely a peer—doing for the ancient crumbling Prague ghetto what I have vainly tried to do for certain festering New England backwaters in some of my own laboured efforts. I had never read the novel before, but mentioned it in my article as a result of having seen the cinema. Now I perceive that I ought to have given it an even higher rating than I did.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 11 Apr 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 266-267

But—I’ve read “The Golem!” Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Goat with a Thousand Young!!! That’s what I call a story! Nothing like the cinema—the latter was just a shocker capitalising the title—though it did have splendid architectural effects. How splendidly subtle the novel is—no overt monsters, but vague suggestions of inconceivable presences & influences! It captures the nebulous, brooding horror of the immemorial Prague ghetto as I have feebly sought to capture that of certain ancient & retrogressive backwaters of New England.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 20 Apr 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 251

Lovecraft was so enthusiastic about the novel that he encouraged several of his correspondents to write to Barlow to have the loan of the book; so that over the next few months it was duly sent from Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, to Margaret Sylvester, Duane W. Rimel, Emil Petaja, F. Lee Baldwin, and Richard F. Searight, and offered it to Clark Ashton Smith as well. A few of their thoughts on the novel survive:

You were right about “The Golem”. Reading it in broad day was no insurance against the subtle assaults upon reality. “No actual monsters jump out of its pages”, but even tho I read it on a sunny Sunday afternoon, in a deckchair in the sunshine, it left me cold and chilly inside, and a bit glassy-eyed. I remember so vividly having wakened somewhere in grey night and seeing dusty moonlight falling thru bars on just such a littered floor as P. awakened to see in the Golem’s room. I can’t have, of course, but the book is so vivid I do remember it clearly. It was ugly. I haven’t quite finished, but will forward it to Miss Sylvester soon, as Barlow has requested.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 7 May 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 35-36

Thanks for Ar-Ech-Bei’s offer of The Golem. However, I read the book several years ago, when it was loaned to me, by a young friend in the Bay region. I agree with you that it is a most consummate and eerily haunting study in strange atmosphere; probably one of the best things of the kind ever written.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Jun 1935, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 608

The others in the lending-list no doubt made their own appreciative comments. As with Lovecraft’s discovery of William Hope Hodgson around the same time, the reading of Meyrink’s novel prompted Lovecraft to read more of his work…but the Old Gent was stymied by the general lack of English translations.

Glad “The Golem” reached you at last. I was sure you’d appreciate it—for it is really a phenomenal triumph in its way. Few books indeed are capable of summoning up such a poignant & convincing pageant of mystical atmospheric impressions—& the absence of conventional “conflict” is all in its favour. I wish I owned it—but am told it is hard to get despite the relatively recent date (1928) of this translation. The original German novel, I believe, dates from the 1890’s. I wish I knew something of Meyrink, but I have found almost nothing about him. The only thing of his besides “The Golem” that I’ve read are som rather mediocre short stories—one of which appeared in W. T. I believe he is still living—but doubt if he has written or ever will write anything to compare with this early tour de force.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 19 Nov 1936, Letters to Price & Searight 431

Although Lovecraft didn’t know it, Meyrink had died in 1932. In his letters, Lovecraft says he had read “a story in the ‘Lock & Key Library'” (ES 2.691), which would be “The Man on the Bottle” (Lock & Key Library vol. 3, 1909), which Lovecraft later described as “a rather clever but essentially routine conte cruel” (OFF 259); “I recall “Bal Macabre” in Strange Tales—very effective, with genuine atmospheric tension” (OFF 259), “Bal Macabre” was published in Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror (Oct 1932); and finally “The Violet Death” ran in Weird Tales (Jul 1935)…and with that, Lovecraft had read basically all of Meyrink’s work that had been published in English during his lifetime.

It is easy to see why Lovecraft was so enamored of The Golem; in its style and elements it is almost a Lovecraftian novel, with is tenuous sanity, hinting horrors, the strange mystical book Ibbur, and other elements. While it would be interesting to ruminate on the influence The Golem had one Lovecraft’s own fiction—to draw parallels, perhaps, between the original Jewish legend of the artificial servitor run amok and the shoggoths of At the Mountaints of Madness—but by the time Lovecraft had read the novel he had relatively few works of original fiction left to write, and those works show little influence of the book or Meyrink’s style. Still, this novel if nothing else would have introduced Lovecraft to tarot cards,which are a recurring occult element.

There was, in fact, only one thing left to do: revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” to rectify his earlier mistake.

I didn’t change as much as I expected—words here & there, a bad punctuation style where dates follow titles of stories, a boner regarding “The Golem”, & a bit of over-florid writing in the Poe chapter. To explain that Golem business I must confess that when I wrote the treatise I hadn’t read the novel. I had seen the cinema version, & thought it was faithful to the original—but when I came to read the book only a year ago…Holy Yuggoth! The film had nothing of the novel save the mere title & the Prague ghetto setting—indeed, in the book the Golem-monster never appeared at all, but merely lurked in the background as a shadowy symbol. That was one on the old man!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 31 Jan 1937, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 415

The revised portion of the essay now reads:

Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, with its haunting shadowy suggestions of marvels and horrors just beyond reach, is laid in Prague, and describes with singular mastery that city’s ancient ghetto with its spectral, peaked gables. The name is derived from a fabulous artificial giant supposed to be made and animated by mediaeval rabbis according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produced in America in 1925, and more recently produced as an opera, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

While this passage shows how scanty was Lovecraft’s knowledge of Jewish religion, history, and lore—he once commented about The Golem, “There is nothing about the Chassidim in it—but the atmosphere is rich enough without ‘em.” (LPS 427), because after his encounter with The Dybbuk (1925) he associated Hassidic Jews with Jewish occultism—the episode as a whole shows that Lovecraft was able to digest and appreciate material from varied traditions, even if his understanding was incomplete. He never, for example, shows any awareness that Meyrink was not Jewish, or that Meyrink’s depiction of the golem legend was influenced by non-Jewish esoteric traditions. While it would be difficult to say that The Golem substantially influenced his fiction in any way, Lovecraft certainly seems to have though it enriched his life—and he made an effort to share that experience with the younger writers he associated with.

Thanks to Cora Buhlert for pointing out that I should mention the 1917 and 1920 film.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Dybbuk (1925) by S. Ansky

up noon—window man & curtains—els telephone—out to York to meet him—up to Sonny’s—AM. Mus., Met. Mus. bus to library—gallery & reading room—els lv. read & Automat—down to N’hood playhouse—Dybbuck—bus & subway—els lv. Penn. Sta see Miss L home—W Side pk—return to 169
—H. P. Lovecraft’s diary entry for 17 December 1925, Collected Essays 5.174

By early 1925, H. P. Lovecraft had effectively separated from his wife. She had gone out to the midwest to work, returning to New York every few weeks to see him. He took a room at 169 Clinton Street, in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was quickly filling up with immigrants. Unable to find work, away from his wife and his family, and suffering the indignity of a break-in to his apartment in May where even his clothes were stolen, his bias against immigrants had begun to reach a fever pitch in his letters.

In mid-December of 1925, his friend Edward Lloyd Sechrist was in town. There was a new play being performed at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and in between visits with friends such as Frank “Sonny” Belknap Long, Jr. and visits to museums and libraries, theatre was one of the things Lovecraft still liked about New York. They would have gone through the cold streets in their winter suits; bought their tickets, found their way through the theater and waited for the house lights to dim…and in the darkness before the curtain rose a voice called out…

Why, oh why,
Did the soul descend
From the highest height
To the deepest end?
The greatest fall
Contains the upward flight.
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 4

Then the curtain rose.

Dybbuk_1

The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

“S. Ansky” was the pen-name of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, a Jewish author, playwright, and folklorist from the Russian Empire. The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds based on Jewish tradition, was written from 1913-1916 in Russian, then translated to Yiddish; it was first performed in Yiddish in Poland in 1920. It was translated into English by Henry G. Alsberg and Winifred Katzin, and opened at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City on 15 December 1925; it would run about 120 performances.

Daily_News_Wed__Dec_16__1925_

Contemporary newspaper reviews were mixed; the supernatural was nothing new to theatre, but the weird drama with its spectral plot and unfamiliar setting and references to Jewish culture and religion was undoubtedly a bit different than most audiences or critics were expecting. Keep in mind that Dracula would not hit the stage in New York until 1927; and Fiddler on the Roof would have to wait until 1964.

It would certainly have been novel for Lovecraft. In his native Providence, he had seldom met any Jews. It was not until Lovecraft came to New York that he encountered many Jewish immigrants from Europe, or anything of Jewish culture.

In his letters home to his aunts Lillian Clark and Annie Gamwell in Providence, Lovecraft had taken to writing long, diary-like entries regarding his experiences in the Big Apple, which included such a scene:

Here exist assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which make them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress. In this particular section, where Hebrew books are vended from pushcarts, and patriarchal rabbis totter in high hats and frock coats, there are far less offensive faces than in the general subways of the town—probably because most of the pushing commercial Jews are from another colony where the blood is less pure.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29-30 Sep 1924,
Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168

A week after Lovecraft saw “The Dybbuk,” he was composing Yuletide verses for his friends, he wrote to his aunt:

In writing Sechrist I alluded to his Polynesian & African travels, & to the hellish play—“The Dybbuk”—to which he so generously treated me last week: 

May Polynesian skies they Yuletide bless,
And primal gods impart thee happiness;
Zimbabwe’s wonders hint mysterious themes,
And ne’er a Dybbuk lurk to mar they dreams!

—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22-23 Dec 1925, LFF 1.513-514

The play impressed Lovecraft enough that when he composed his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for his friend W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Recluse, he felt obliged to mention it in the brief section on Jewish influence on weird fiction:

A very flourishing, though till recently quite hidden, branch of weird literature is that of the Jews, kept alive and nourished in obscurity by the sombre heritage of early Eastern magic, apocalyptic literature, and cabbalism. The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. Cabbalism itself, so prominent during the Middle Ages, is a system of philosophy explaining the universe as emanations of the Deity, and involving the existence of strange spiritual realms and beings apart from the visible world, of which dark glimpses may be obtained through certain secret incantations. Its ritual is bound up with mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and attributes an esoteric significance to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—a circumstance which has imparted to Hebrew letters a sort of spectral glamour and potency in the popular literature of magic. Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version), CE 2.100

Several years later, Lovecraft would have occasion to revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” into its final form; in discussing The Dybbuk he added “and more recently produced as an opera.” The operatic version was in Italian, and ran as Il dibuk in 1934, and made its way to New York by 1935. Lovecraft’s friend Richard F. Searight had seen the opera, and this elicted from the Old Gent in Providence his deepest appreciation of the play:

Your description of the opera “The Dybbuk” is extremely fascinating to me, especially since I had the good luck to see the original play in 1925—when a translation was presented in New York. The mere play (which was very well staged & acted) was impressive enough, & I can well imagine the additional power derived from an appropriate musical score. From our account, I judge that the opera follows the order & events of the drama quite closely. Mention of a dance of beggars vaguely reminds me of something in the play—connected with a garden scene. The exorcism was very powerful, even without music. I surely hope I can encounter the opera sooner or later—though I don’t know when I shall next visit New York. The play produced a very potent impression on me, & I had a vague idea of trying to base a story on the dybbuk idea. I saved my programme—which had copious notes on the particular sect of Jews most addicted to cablistic research (I think they were called the Chassidim)—but that young rascal Long lost it when I lent it to him! Without this ready-made data, I let the story-ida languish—though I suppose I could find out about dybbuks, & about the Chassidim, in the great Jewish Encyclopaedia which is available at most large libraries. [E. Hoffmann] Price got a lot of stuff about Lilith from this source. What is more—this work might shed a picturesque light on the Golem belief.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 12 Jun 1936, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price and Richard F. Searight 415-416

“Chassadim” is a reference to Hasidic Judaism, a spiritual revivalist sect that arose in Ukraine in the 18th century, and which spread through Eastern Europe and was carried to the United States by immigrants. Culturally conservative regarding their traditional clothing, it was likely Hasidic Jews who caught Lovecraft’s eye when he arrived in New York.

The idea of Lovecraft drawing inspiration from Jewish folkore is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem. “The Horror at Red Hook,” inspired in part by his experiences in New York, includes references to Lilith and aspects of medieval European occultism connected to or partially derived from Jewish sources (although in this case Lovecraft relied on the Encyclopedia Britannica rather than the Jewish Encyclopedia). The idea of the dybbuk as a possessing spirit has parallels with several of Lovecraft’s stories, notably “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and The Shadow Out of Time, and Lovecraft had written down ideas for other stories in the same vein, which like his Dybbuk-inspired tale, was never to be written.

Dybbuk_2

The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

Rabbi Azriel. Did anyone ask the dybbuk who he is and why he’s possessing your daughter?
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 36

Ansky’s play is a human drama in a world of spiritual and material forces, intertwined and influencing one anothers; human action has supernatural reprecussions, and supernatural forces can influence and afflict people. It deals with the interplay of these forces, but is focused very much on the people involved, their thoughts and emotions, the stresses they undergo in their daily lives as they strive and struggle and work to fit their role in the world.

Rabbi Azriel suffers his moments of crisis, and even the dybbuk is a sympathetic figure that begs the rabbi not to exorcise him. It is not a the antagonist Hollywood approach to the expelling of an evil spirit or demon at all…and it is notable that Lovecraft, whatever parallels his work may have in the idea of an alien intelligence possessing a body, never offers exorcism as a potential source of hope. The bittersweet ending of would-be bride-and-groom in The Dybbuk is almost the exact opposite of what Lovecraft would concoct as the final fate of Asenath Waite and Edward Derby.

Yet it is easy to see how he might well have been moved by the exorcism scene, the powerful cry of the lost soul clinging onto the one piece of its past that it can, with nowhere else to go and nothing else to anchor itself…and Lovecraft himself was barely clinging on, surrounded by his books and furniture, all that he had taken with him from Providence to the New York he increasingly found alienating and strange.

H. P. Lovecraft would experience and appreciate few works of Jewish culture in his life, yet he held The Dybbuk in high esteem—and we are left to wonder what might have happened, if a program had not been lost, and if Lovecraft had sat down on a park bench one day after careful thought and some research, to pen a new tale.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Night-Gaunts” (2017) by Joyce Carol Oates

When I was 6 or 7 I used to be tormented constantly with a peculiar type of recurrent nightmare in which a monstrous race of entities (called by my “Night-Gaunts”—I don’t know where I got hold of the name) used to snatch me up by the stomach (bad digestion?) and carry me off through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead and horrible cities. They would finally get me into a grey void where I could see the needlelike pinnacles of enormous mountains miles below. Then they would let drop—and as I gained momentum in my Icarus-like plunge I would start awake in such panic that I hated to think of sleeping again. The “night-gaunts” were black, lean, rubbery things with bared, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all. Undoubtedly I derived the image from the jumbled memory of Doré’s drawings (largely the illustrations to Paradise Lost) which fascinated me in waking hours. They had no voices, and their only form of real torture was their habit of tickling my stomach (digestion again0 before snatching me up and swooping away with me. I sometimes had the vague notion that they lived in the black burrows honeycombing the pinnacle of some incredibly high mountain somewhere. they seemed to come in flocks of 25 or 50, and would sometimes fling me one to the other. Night after night I dreamed the same horror with only minor variants—but I never struck those hideous mountain peaks before waking. If I had…well, the point is that these things decreased rapidly as I grew older. Each year I believed less and less of the supernatural, and when I was 8 I began to be interested in science and cast off my last shred of religious and other superstitious belief. I do not recall many “night-gaunt” dreams after I was 8—or any after I was 10 or 11. But Yuggoth, what an impression they made on me! 34 years later I chose them as the theme of one of my Fungi….
—H. P. Lovecraft to Virgil Finlay, 24 Oct 1936, Selected Letters 5.335

A common refrain these days is to separate the art from the artist. To distinguish between an appreciation for a creator’s works from an appreciation or an agreement with the author themselves. One could, hypothetically, pick up a book by a mass murderer and enjoy it without knowing anything about the author, or admire a painting at a gallery without any awareness that the artist was a member of the Ku Klux Klan…but this implies a level of ignorance about the creator; the person approaches their work without context, without any expectation or prejudice.

It becomes more difficult to separate the art from the artist when you know more about the creator in question, when the events of their lives and their other works inform various details and themes throughout their ouevre. Such is the case with Howard Phillips Lovecraft—and perhaps more than that.

Even while he was alive, Lovecraft crossed the thin threshold between reality and legend. Frank Belknap Long immortalized him as “Howard” in “The Space-Eaters” (1928), Edith Miniter added “H. Theobald, Jr.” to  The Village Green (192?), and Robert Bloch secured permission from Lovecraft before inserting him into “The Shambler From the Stars” (1935)—and killing such fictional alter ego. Friends like Samuel Loveman and Elizabeth Toldridge wrote poetic tributes, and even his future wife Sonia H. Greene would get into the action with “Four O’Clock” (1949).

After Lovecraft’s death, memoirs, biographies, and letters were published; authors and artists who had never met or corresponded with Lovecraft now continued to se his name, his likeness, his legend in the development of new works. “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg“Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins, “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper…these barely scratch the surface of works that use either a fictional Lovecraft, or a character based on Lovecraft, inspired by his name, his likeness, the events of his life.

As understanding of Lovecraft’s life has deepened and spread, so that the portrait of his life has become more complete, so too have the warts become more apparent. Lovecraft was generally kind, well-mannered, generous to a fault within his limited means, and gave tremendous encouragement to many writers, some of whom like Robert Bloch would go on to be amazingly influential themselves. Lovecraft was also, by his own admission, racist, antisemitic, and homophobic. Cultural syntax on these traits has shifted: readers and creators no longer want to passively acknowledge them, some of them want to actively engage with the massive underlying issues of prejudice through Lovecraft…so, contemporary works like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin, and Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee continue to engage with Lovecraft’s legend and legacy, though in a different way than previous generations.

Somewhere in between the iconic fictional Lovecrafts of the early generations of Mythos authors and the strawmen and monsters of the current generation lies Joyce Carol Oates’ character of Horace Phineas Love, Jr. from her novella “Night-Gaunts.”

H. P. Love, Jr. is, despite many similarities, patently not H. P. Lovecraft. Love is a semiotic ghost, a deliberately distorted vision of Lovecraft’s childhood, reimagined and remixed. Much of their lives have parallel: the father that died of syphilis, the grandfather’s library, the intelligent child that became a weird fiction author as an adult. Yet a great deal of it is not right, too. Lovecraft didn’t have the Scots nurses; or lost the family home; and certainly never found a copy of the Necronomicon in his grandfather’s library. Very likely, Lovecraft didn’t have congenital syphilis either, a point that has constituted an entire thread of Lovecraft scholarship from the time Winfield Townley Scott revealed the cause of Winfield Scott Lovecraft’s death down throuh Victoria Nelson’s “H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies”—even though Lovecraft didn’t test positive for the disease during his final illness (see “The Shadow of Syphilis” in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos).

Which kind of begs the question: if H. P. Love, Jr. is modelled on H. P. Lovecraft but also very deliberately not Lovecraft…why? What is the point? What story is Oates telling us when she writes snippets like:

A young girl-urchin, scarcely ten, opens her soiled dress—bares her white, scrawny chest—tiny breasts, with small pinpoint-nipples—twelve-year-old Horace is astonished—he has never seen anything like this except in certain of the illustrations in his grandfather’s liberary and then never of children so young. It is horrible to see, it is hideous, the aghast boy feels no sex-desire but only pity and sorrow, and fear.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense 315

If this was a way for Oates to address a fictional Lovecraft-clone’s apparent asexuality or lack of sexual desire, it’s a damn weird way of doing it. In truth, “Night-Gaunts” gives no direct answers to what it is about. In broad strokes, it is a kind of ghost story, but it is a ghost story that gets a bit lost up its own internal anatomy pursuing the alternative life of very-definitely-not-H. P. Lovecraft in a way that nevertheless seems to reflect very strongly on certain interpretations of the life and characters of H. P. Lovecraft.

A clue might be the image of the birthmark which H. P. Love, Jr. and his syphilitic father H. P. Love, Jr. share; this would appear to be an homage or reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic story “The Birth-Mark.” If one keeps the moral of that tale in mind, “Night-Gaunts” might be read as a message and a meditation on Lovecraft—how the focus on the mundane facts of a biography ignores the immortal essence of the legend, in a very “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” way—and that Horace Phineas Love, Jr. is, in effect both an interpretation of the legendary Lovecraft and a kind of commentary on the same.

If this is the case, it might not be entirely successful. “Night-Gaunts” reminds a great deal of Fred Chappell’s novel Dagon (1987), where the writing is good, but the themes, plot, and characterization never seem to really come together. In weird fiction, the atmosphere and telling of the story count for more than actual plot, but for “Night-Gaunts” there is a sort of postmodern purposelessness to it all: the events of Lovecraft’s life nearly define the contours of the story (except when they don’t; H. P. Love, Jr. never marries), but the internal journey of H. P. Love, Jr. is necessarily incomplete, tasks unfinished, questions unanswered.

Not every question needs an answer—the reader can decide for themselves whether or not the night-gaunts are real—or what writhing form was glimpsed in the master bedroom—but it feels like there should have been, at least, some metafictional flicker of awareness. Something to clue Love or the reader in to what their true connection to Lovecraft was. Absent that, “Night-Gaunts” feels a bit like a love letter to a dead boyfriend…an effort not to  communicate to anyone that might read it, but to work out in prose some thoughts and ideas about that semiotic echo of Lovecraft in popular culture, the recluse so many readers have dreamed Lovecraft as rather than the flesh-and-blood man who lived and died.

“Night-Gaunts” (2017) was first published in the Yale Review, and collected in Joyce Carol Oates’ Night-Gaunts and Other Tales of Suspense (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Margaret Sylvester

Dear Miss Sylvester:

[…] Regarding the Necronomicon–I must confess that this monstrous & abhorred volume is merely a figment of my own imagination! Inventing horrible books is quite a pastime among devotees of the weird, & ….. many of the regular W.T. contributors have such things to their credit–or discredit. It rather amuses the different writers to use one another’s synthetic demons & imaginary books in their stois–so that Clark Ashton Smith often speaks of my Necronomicon while I refer to his Book of Eibon..& so on. This pooling of resource stents to build up quite a pseudo-convincing background of dark mythology, legendary, & bibliography–though of course none of us has the least wish actually to mislead readers. ….

Yrs. most cordially & sincerely,

H. P. Lovecraft
—H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, 13 Jan 1934, Selected Letters 4.344-346

Margaret D. Sylvester was born in 1918, which made her fifteen years old when she wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, care of Weird Tales, in late 1933 or early 1934. We know little about her life: at the time she was living in Denver, Colorado with her parents and two younger brothers, no doubt going to school and reading pulp magazines for entertainment. She seems to have had a taste for the macabre, and like many fans that wrote to Lovecraft, found that he wrote back. While we don’t know how regular their correspondence was, Lovecraft included her on his list to mail postcards to during his travels, and on his list of correspondents in his instructions in case of decease.

That letter from 13 January 1934 may well be the first; it has something of the tone of an answer, and questions about the Necronomicon was common early on in correspondence with Lovecraft. A long passage before this discusses the witch-cult and Walpurgisnacht, with Lovecraft borrowing from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray in his answer. “The Dreams in the Witch House” had been published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales, so perhaps that had precipitated the teenaged Margaret to pen a letter to him, filled with questions.

The best insight we have into Margaret Sylvester’s early correspondence with Lovecraft is in the few letters where he mentions her to others; in particular a long passage from mid-1934:

Am still shudderingly admiring the saponaceous monolith–& before I forget it, let me pass on a request for your charitable sculptorial services which I fancy you may wish to grant. A very bright young western correspondent–a damsel of precisely your own years who wrote me through W.T. & is interested in everything weird, especially art–has seen many of your drawings & the Cthulhu photograph (but not Ganesa), & has heard of your powers in clay-modelling & marionette work. Needless to say, her admiration of the Lord Ghu is boundless. Now it happens that she is herself an inveterate puppeteer, having given performances of “Dracula” & other horrors with figures made by herself; & contemplating such future triumphs as “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” & “Beauty & the Beast.” Here is where you come in. Filled with respect for your fertile fancy, she will not be content till she gets a hellish clay head of your conception & workmanship for the Beast figure of “Beauty & the Beast.” Evidently she prefers a typically Barlovian nameless Thing to any conventional phiz. I’ve told her to write you direct–but if she doesn’t, & if you think the honour of representation & credit in an undoubtedly clever & probably oft-repeated marionette show would be sufficient reward for the sculptural effort, you’d better drop her a line yourself asking for mechanical particulars & further ideas. Address: Miss Margaret Sylvester, 4515 East 25th Ave., Denver, Colorado. I’d do it if I were you–since such modelling is an intrinsic pleasure. You’ll probably find this kid an interesting correspondent, too–very bright, though not a writer so far as I know. And a great admirer of your cinema hero Singor Lugosi.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 22 Aug 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 166

“Lord Ghu” was one of Lovecraft’s nicknames for Barlow, who had taken to modeling figures in clay, including a tablet-image of Cthulhu and a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha. “Singor Lugosi” would be actor Bela Lugosi, whose filmography included Dracula (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), White Zombie (1932), Chandru the Magician (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and The Return of Chandru (1934).

As it happened, Barlow declined the project. However, Barlow did agree to loan “Little Maggie” his copy of Gustav Meyrinck’s The Golem, which was currently being read by Catherine Lucille Moore; one can imagine the young Margaret Sylvester’s surprise to get a package from Weird Tales author C. L. Moore in the mail one day. Margaret Sylvester would in turn forward the book to Lovecraft’s correspondent Duane W. Rimel when she was done with it.

In about May 1935, a chain letter was sent to Lovecraft—Margaret Sylvester is the name immediately before Lovecraft’s. He forwarded the chain letter, including a few judicious remarks, to Barlow for his amusement.

So you’ve had several of the chain things come, eh? I’ve seen only two so far–Bro. Hadley’s & Little Maggie’s. The latter child seems to be in the business–indeed, according to press reports it started in her town.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 275

No doubt the letters in 1935 would have included mention of her poetry:

Yearbook_full_record_image

Angelus, 1935 East Side High School Yearbook, page 135

There are some indications that Lovecraft may have recruited Margaret for the National Amateur Press Association c. 1936, but if she ever published her “credential”, it is not known where or when. No doubt the letters from 1934-1936 were filled with a mix of Lovecraft’s typical accounts of news & travel and whatever topics that the two found of interest to share and discuss…such as Margaret Sylvester’s graduation from North Side High School in Denver, Colorado, and her aims at higher education.

You missed little Maggie Sylvester by only a few days, since she set out for the metropolis on the 11th. I’m telling Leedle Meestah Stoiling to extend her a welcome. Her address is now 157 E. 57th St., N.Y.C.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 16 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 360

And little Maggie Sylvester of Denver is in New York for an art course or something–to be addressed at 157 E. 37th St.
H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Sep 1936, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 649

Leedle Meestah Stoiling cut the Harvard Tercentenary in order to stay longer in N Y with his parents. He tried to see little Maggie, but had to proceed to Cambridge before he could find her at home.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 30 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 363

“Leedle Meestah Stoiling” was Kenneth Sterling, another of Lovecraft’s young correspondents, with whom Lovecraft would collaborate on “In the Walls of Eryx.” It is not clear where in New York Margaret Sylvester attended art school, but her 2010 death certificate reads: “Some college credit, but no degee.” so for whatever reason she did not graduate. Perhaps she found a job; we know that in 1940 she married Frank Ronan, and took his name as Margaret Ronan. She was employed by Scholastic Publications as a critic, writer, and editor, publishing both anthologies and nonfiction books with a distinct horror bent aimed at the children/young adult market. In 1971 she edited The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror, which may have been many a teen’s first introduction to Lovecraft, and there she wrote:

With his correspondents, Howard Lovecraft could relax. His letters, written in tiny, crabbed writing, are full of sly humor. Instead of a return address and a date, they could bear such headings as “Black Marsh of Gthath, Hour that the Ooze Stirs,” or “Black Cylinder Floating between Two Universes, Hour of the Burning Galaxy.” In one letter he sent to me, he refers to a description of himself given by a mutual friend: “As it happens, several points in Mr. Sterling’s word-picture are misleading. It is out of my right, not left shoulder that the ropy tentacles grow. What grows out of the left shoulder is one of my four eyeless heads. This head is not to be confused with the one growing out of my right elbow (the one with the green fangs).”
Margaret Ronan, “A Word to the Reader”

An extract from a single letter to Margaret Sylvester (13 January 1934) was published in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters IV. Arthur S. Koki obviously contacted Margaret Ronan, because he cites and quotes from several of her letters in his 1962 M.A. thesis “H. P. Lovecraft: An Introduction to His Life and Writings.” Most of these are fairly small and give little of the flavor of their correspondence, but two fragments stand out, the first on the death of Robert E. Howard (which occurred on 11 June 1936) and the second on the issue of marriage:

I doubt whether there was any definite cause aside from Mrs. Howard’s approaching death. As I see it, it was simply the disastrous combination of a certain kind of temperament with one sharp blow. Probably it would never have occurred if good old Two-Gun hadn’t been watching sleepless by his mother’s bedside for endless weeks. He was nervously & physically exhausted by those weeks of overwork, sleeplessness & tension–brooding deeply (as shown by poems like ‘The Tempter’) even though putting up a brave front to the outside world. Then came despair–& the consciousness that the fight for his mother’s life was hopeless. With no energy to resist the shock–no fund of healthy life-clinging, nerve-twisting strain–poor REH reacted in what must have seemed the shortest & simplest way. And what a damned shame! But of course I suppose general temperament was a factor. Despite his violent, assertive contempt for the “artistic attitude,” Two-Gun was essentially of the neurotic aesthetic type–that is, a person filled with imaginative concepts of certain conditions unrelated to reality which he would like to see around him, & correspondingly resentful of the pressure of the actual world.
H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, October 1936, Koki 298-299

I do not regard marriage as a social superfluity, but believe it has extreme stabilizing value in the organization of a state Its advantages are numerous & varied–& are indeed so apparent to the unbiased anthropologist that even Soviet Russia (where no traditional institution is kept up for tradition’s sake alone) is beginning to urge its systematic maintenance & more faithful & universal practice.
H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, n.d. (Jan 1937?), Koki 212

Presumably, most of the surviving letters from Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester are in private hands. It is known that there are three letters at the John Hay Library, including the full 13 January 1934 letter that is excerpted in the Selected Letters. Also included is a letter believed to date from February 1937—one of the last letters that Lovecraft would write—with the address given as “Cave of the Crumbling Bones.” A copy of this letter was in the collection of actor Christopher Lee, who brought it out during the episode “Demons” on the series 100 Years of Horror (1996).

We can only speculate how much the correspondence with Lovecraft shaped a young Margaret Sylvester’s life. No doubt she was already on her macabre path, but no doubt too that he gave her encouragement to pursue those interests.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Anne Tillery Renshaw

Having finally broken away from Dorchester & attained Copley Square, I at last met in person the celebrated leader of United affairs whom I have known in letters for seven years—Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw of Rocky Mount, N.C., & Washington, D.C. In aspect stout & homely, she is in conversation pleasant, cultivated, & intelligent; with all the force of mind & speech becoming a philosopher, poet, & professor of English, drama, & public speaking. […] At the School of Expression the only amateurs were Mrs. Renshaw & her travelling companion Miss Crist—a colourless young woman who acts as her secretary, typist, & general caretaker; reminding her when she leaves her handbag behind or fails to put on her hat—for Mrs. R. has all the absent-mindedness of genius. […] The conversation consisted almost exclusively of philosophical argument, in which Mrs. R. has all the facility & urbanity of James F. Morton Jr. […] Mrs. McMullen played & sang her “Bumble Fairy”, & Mrs. Renshaw sang two songs (of which she wrote the words) in an excellent controlato, with Miss Crist as accompanist. […] Mrs. Renshaw, who had evidently acquired some of that flattering tendency which is inherent in the air of country villages like Boston, insisted that I ought to write a textbook on English—offering to see to its publication & introduce it in classes at Research University, where she is not head of the English Department. This rather reminded me of the high-flown pipe-dreams of Alnaschar—but another of her commercial suggestions was really practical so far as appearances go. This latter was a plan for me to correct & criticise by mail a number of English themes each week—the exercises of Mrs. R’s classes at the University. Such a procedure would, if the price were sufficiently high, be rather less horrible than Bush work—but there was no time that evening to discuss details. Plans with financial features usually fall through, so I am not yet planning what make of automobile I shall purchase with the fortune gained by text book authorship & associate professorship!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 19 Aug 1921, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.37-40

In 1914, Anne Vyne Tillery and H. P. Lovecraft first encountered each other in the pages of amateur journalism. They were of an age; Tillery was born in 1899, and Lovecraft in 1890, and had both been recruited to the United Amateur Press Association, the smaller and younger of the two nationwide amateur journalism organizations in existence at the time, and from the first Lovecraft wrote admiringly of her poetry:

“A Garden of Silence and Roses” introduces to the firmament of amateur journalism a new star, in the person of Miss Annie Vyne Tillery, author of professionally published books and poems. Miss Tillery’s style is at once deep and delicate, pervaded throughout with a poetic fervour seldom observed in products of the youthful pen.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 2 (Nov 1914), CE 1.14

“The Dirge of the Great Atlantic”, by Anne Vyne Tillery Renshaw, is a grim and moving bit of verse, cast in the same primitively stirring metre which this author used in her professionally published poem, “The Chant of Iron”. Mrs. Renshaw possesses an enviable power to reach the emotions through the medium of the written word.
—H. P. Lovecraft “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 3 (Jan 1915), CE 1.20

Anne Tillery was educated at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., attended school in Baltimore and Dr. Curry’s Professional School (presumably Curry School of Expression, now Curry College). She had published a collection of verse, Moods, Mystical and Otherwise (1914), and was actively engaged as a writer and educator specializing in public speaking (then called “expression”) and English.

On 10 December 1914, Anne married Joseph Wilroy Renshaw, a lawyer, and became Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw. Her husband was either already involved in amateur journalism or became involved in it soon after, because in 1915 they launched their joint amateur journal Ole’ Miss (Anne having been raised in Mississippi, and both she and her husband were Southerners.) Lovecraft wrote of the new journal:

Ole’ Miss for March, edited by Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Renshaw, easily falls into the very front rank of the season’s amateur journals. In this number Mr. Joseph W. Renshaw makes his initial appearance before the members of the United, producing a very favourable impression with his pure, attractive prose. The introduction, credited in another column to Mr. Renshaw, is of graceful and pleasing character, recalling the elusively beautiful atmosphere of the Old South which is too soon passing away.
—H. P. Lovecraft “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 5 (May 1915), CE 1.40

Both Lovecraft and Mrs. Renshaw quickly began to rise in the ranks of the United; when Lovecraft was elected first vice president in 1915, Renshaw was elected second vice president, and the two collaborated on efforts to recruit new members to the cause of amateur journalism. He also served as assistant editor to Renshaw in the amateur journal Credential, which was aimed at new members (the first piece published by a new member was referred to as their “credential.”)

Despite being perhaps Lovecraft’s oldest and longest-lasting woman correspondent who was not a member of his family, the surviving letters between Lovecraft and Mrs. Renshaw are few. However, we know they must have had a fairly robust correspondence for the first few years of their acquaintance, because aside from amateur affairs  Lovecraft had joined with Renshaw and her friend Mrs. J. G. Smith in the Symphony Literary Service, a revision service where Lovecraft handled verse. It isn’t clear how long this service lasted, but it seems to have been Lovecraft’s foot in the door to freelance revision work and ghostwriting, which would become one of his major sources of income in life. The first few letters we have from Lovecraft and Renshaw date to the 1918 period, a mix of amateur affairs, poetical disputes (Lovecraft disliked free verse, while Renshaw was an advocate for free expression), and current affairs.

Lovecraft supported Renshaw during her successful candidacy in 1919 as Official Editor of the United, and she seems to have been otherwise keeping busy in teaching and publishing:

Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw, with characteristic energy, has transferred her interests from State College, Pa., to Washington, D.C. During the autumn she was circulation manager of The Suffragist, a large illustrated monthly, whose subscription department she practically revitalised with her efficient management. She has now accepted a chair at Research University, becoming head of the English Department with the title of Professor. Mrs. Renshaw receives the sympathy of the Association upon the death of Mr. Renshaw in November, and upon the illness of her mother at the same time.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “News Notes” United Amateur 20, No. 2 (Nov 1920), CE 1.265

J. W. Renshaw died in November 1920, probably of pneumonia. We know little of their marriage; they had no children, and Mrs. Renshaw would never remarry. After his death, she was located primarily in Washington, D.C.; she met Lovecraft for the first time in 1921 in Boston. The suggestion she made that Lovecraft revise student work was apparently acted upon, because sometime later Lovecraft wrote:

Amateur journalism’s connexion with Penn State (circa 1919-22, if memory serves aright) was established through one of our members—a Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw, now head of a school of elocution in Washington—who went there as an associate professor. She organised her classes into a literary club connected with the United Amateur Press Association, hence we of the Association handled a good deal of their work & assisted them to some extent in a critical way. [Fred Lewis] Pattee was there at the time, & Mrs. Renshaw sometimes spoke of him—indeed, she sent me a copy of his weird novel, “The House of the Black Ring.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 13 Feb 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 258

Lovecraft and Renshaw met again in 1925 when he came as a tourist to Washington, where she drove him about on a sightseeing tour:

[…] our attention was distracted by a hail from the road, where was fast approaching the Renshaw car, with its owner, Sechrist, and a prepossessing gentlewoman of early middle age as occupants. Mrs. R. had, it seems, arriv’d at the Monument immediately after our departure; and having pickt up Sechrist, follow’d us along the course we had told him we wou’d take. With the years this lady hath become a person of much importance in Washington, being now a select teach of dramatic and oratorical method, and prominent in female political circles. (Republican) She is, however, wholly unspoilt; and shew’d extreme kindness in absenting herself from most of her guests and spending the whole day in the guidance of our party, despite the protests we mixt with our profound thanks. […] The car, being small, seated just the five persons present: Mrs. R. (Driving) and Miss D. in font, and myself, Sechrist, and Kirk (reading left to right) on the rear seat). […] There, in the mellow glow of an afternoon no longer young, Mrs. Renshaw deposited Kirk, Christ, and me upon the pavement for a pedestrian finale; herself driving off toward her ome with Miss Dashiel, accompany’d by the most profound and sincere gratitude of the voyagers. We apologised for our inability to accompany her and meet her other guests, as she had wished; but I regret that I have so far fail’d—amidst the rush of the past week—to write her and Sechrist those expressions of thanks and pleasure which urbanity demands.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 21 Apr 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.274-275, 286

We hear little of the Renshaw/Lovecraft correspondence over the next few years; both of them drifted away from the central role they had held in amateur affairs, and Mrs. Renshaw was herself busy with teaching and running her own school in Washington, D.C., where public speaking and oratory were key skills for politicians. It is possible that there were gaps in their correspondence, which might account for why so few letters survive; or that many of them simply concerned business matters which neither considered worth preserving; Lovecraft used the backs of some letters for writing drafts of his stories.

Still, she must have continued to push at least occasional revision work Lovecraft’s way:

[…] our old-time fellow-amateur Mrs. Renshaw has reappear’d on the horizon with a lot of overflow theme papers from her school to be criticis’d and graded. All this means cash for coach-drivers, of course—but it also means workand nothing repels and discourages me more than the latter.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 14 Mar 1930, Selected Letters 3.130

While revision didn’t pay much, the amounts that Lovecraft did receive no doubt helped in part to fund his excursions to Florida, Louisiana, and Quebec.

It is hard to say at this point what exactly the relationship was between Anne Tillery Renshaw and H. P. Lovecraft. They were friends, certainly, but they do not appear to have had the sort of mentor-mentee relationship that Lovecraft had with some of the younger women writers, professional or amateur, that he would get to know. There is little doubt that Lovecraft saw Renshaw as a peer, and if they did not agree on everything, he seems to have respected her intelligence and the force of her arguments. Unfortunately, it is difficult to say what common ground they might have shared being writing & poetry in general, as Renshaw does not seem to have had any particular interest in weird fiction.

The commercial side of their dealings is harder to pin down, although it would become the focus of their final and most substantial surviving communications. Anne Tillery Renshaw was at this point dean of the Renshaw School of Speech, whose curriculum was based on the Curry Method (a system of public speaking that included a combination of technical exercises and encouragement to express real emotion and natural gestures), and she availed on Lovecraft to help write a textbook for a new course—much as she had proposed some fifteen years earlier, when they first met in Boston.

Lovecraft was already busy with other jobs in 1936, but agreed to take the work on—he needed the money. 

I now made an attempt to go on with the one revision job which I have not yet returned—in the hope that I might be able to perform at least part of it & receive remuneration therefor. Results remain doubtful, since the more original parts will need leisure & concentration. It is a text-book on English usage by Mrs. Renshaw—& most of my time today was spent in straightening out historical & mythological errors in the section where certain familiar allusions are explained.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie E. P. Gamwell, Diary for 29 March 1936, LFF 2.991

Notes on the massive revision job reoccur in Lovecraft’s letters throughout 1936, and the stress built up as Lovecraft required extensions on the original deadline.

I had a hell of a siege getting that Renshaw ghost-writing job done on time—the deadline having been extended a bit. The last chapter—where I had to dope out a complete reading course in literature, the sciences, & the arts, mentioning the latest text-books in fields covering the rapidly changing sciences–was the really killing part. At the end I had to work 60 hours without sleep—but I finally got the damn thing into the mails. There may be more to do on it yet—& the trivial detail of price is not yet settled. If Mrs. Renshaw tries to drive me under 200 bucks, she’s a cheap skate!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 30 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian! 363

As a matter of fact, owing to the lateness, Lovecraft only requested $100 for the massive job…and got it.

RenshawLetter

Read the whole letter at the John Hay Library

In fact, much of what Lovecraft had written was seriously abridged or cut from the final book, which was published as Well-Bred Speech (1936). Lovecraft performed the final revisions amiably enough:

Well—I am still working on that Renshaw text-book. The manuscript, considerably abridged, came back once more for revision, & now (am reading the printer’s proofs & catching a number of errors therein.) The job is being handled by the Standard Press of 930 H. St., N.W.—perhaps you know of it. It will have to be done & delivered by Nov. 5th, since the course involving the book opens on the 6th. Haste has made this job more difficult than it would otherwise have been.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Oct 1936, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 344

RenshawLetter2

Read the whole letter at the John Hay Library.

It is not clear whether Lovecraft and Renshaw corresponded during the final months of his life remaining to him, although his last, unfinished letter to James F. Morton in 1937 includes reference to the ordeal of getting the manuscript together.

Anne Tillery Renshaw continued to teach, lecture, and write until her death on 24 June 1944.

For twenty-two years of correspondence (1914-1936), very little survives. Ten letters from Lovecraft to Renshaw are published in The Letters of Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw, along with the previously unpublished sections of Well Bred Speech that Lovecraft wrote but were cut from the final product. Portions of six of these letters were previously published in the Arkham House Selected Letters. Eight letters & cards from Anne Tillery Renshaw to Lovecraft, all dating from 1935-1936, have been scanned and may be viewed online at the John Hay Library website.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Night Ocean” (1936) by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft

 For I have always been a seeker, a dreamer, and a ponderer on seeking and dreaming; and who can say that such a nature does not open latent eyes sensitive to unsuspected worlds and orders of being?
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean” (1936)

From 28 July to 1 September 1936, R. H. Barlow visited H. P. Lovecraft for what would be the final time. Barlow had just turned 18 the previous May, and his parent’s marriage was on the point of deterioration; the young man was destined to stay with relatives in Kansas City, and a brief term at the Kansas City Art Institute. But for over a month he roomed at the boarding house near Lovecraft’s home on 66 College Street, and it was presumably at this time that Lovecraft made some revisions to Barlow’s story “The Night Ocean.”

A few paragraphs of this story had first been published as “A Fragment” in The Californian Winter 1935 issue. The Californian was the amateur journal of Hyman Bradofsky, one to which Lovecraft and a few of his friends such as Natalie H. Wooley also contributed, and Lovecraft was luring Barlow into amateur journalism, at least for a brief spell. Lovecraft mentions “The Night Ocean” among items he hadn’t seen before Barlow’s visit (O Fortunate Floridian! 353), so it seems clear that this was a story Barlow had been working on for quite some time. There is some evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that Barlow was at loose ends during this period, trying many different things—art, writing, printing, poetry—to see where his talents were best suited, and this included writing a passel of fiction, some of it carefully, some of it hastily.

Lovecraft apparently showed some of these fictional efforts to August Derleth during or shortly after Barlow’s stay, including an intriguing piece titled “I Hate Queers” which does not appear to have survived. After passing along Derleth’s criticism, Lovecraft wrote:

Barlow appreciates your criticism immensely, & will doubtless be guided by them in future attempts. He is now, of course, in a purely experimental stage—scarcely knowing what he wants to write, or whether he wants to write at all…as distinguished from painting, printing, bookbinding, &c. My own opinion is that writing best suits him–but I think he does better in fantasy than in realism. A recent atmospheric sketch of his—”The Night Ocean”—is quite Blackwoodian in its power of dark suggestion.—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 Sep 1936, Essential Solitude 2.748

Lovecraft’s suggested revisions for “The Night Ocean” were somewhat uncharacteristically light. While we often think of Lovecraft essentially re-writing stories, in this case his changes only amount to less than 10% of the work. A typed manuscript with Lovecraft’s handwritten revisions survives, and is reproduced in facsimile in Lovecraft Annual #8. Barlow then prepared a fresh typescript incorporating most (but not all) of Lovecraft’s suggested revisions, which was submitted and accepted by Bradofsky, who published it in Winter 1936 issue of The Californian. In his letters, Lovecraft praised Barlow and the story:

Glad to know that you’ve been in touch with Kansas City’s brilliant new citizen, & hope you’ll be able to meet the little imp in person before long. He is certainly one of the brightest & most promising kids I have ever seen—gifted alike in literature, art, & various forms of craftsmanship—& despite his present scattering of energies in different fields I think he will go far in the end. His studies at the Art Institute will undoubtedly be very good for him, & help him to establish a sort of aesthetic orientation. Hope he’ll meet your uncle amidst the academic maze—though the size of the institution doubtless minimises the chances of accidental contact. Barlow has been growing fast in a literary as well as artistic way—as you doubtless deduced from his “Dim-Remembered Story” in The Californian. A still later tale of his—”The Night Ocean”, also scheduled for The Californianshows an even greater advance, being really one of the finest atmospheric studies ever written by a member of the group.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 21 Nov 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 213

As much as Lovecraft is sometimes held to include autobiographical elements in his stories, it’s hard not to see something of young Barlow in the the nameless narrator; a sensitive artist who holds himself apart from the crude masses of normal people. Whose sensitive soul opens him to vague fears when they finally achieve the isolation they had thought they wanted:

That the place was isolated I have said, and this at first pleased me; but in that brief evening hour when the sun left a gore-splattered decline and darkness lumbered on like an expanding shapeless blot, there was an alien presence about the place: a spirit, a mood, an impression that came from the surging wind, the gigantic sky, and that sea which drooled blackening waves upon a beach grown abruptly strange. At these times I felt an uneasiness which had no very definite cause, although my solitary nature had made me long accustomed to the ancient silence and the ancient voice of nature. These misgivings, to which I could have put no sure name, did not affect me long, yet I think now that all the while a gradual consciousness of the ocean’s immense loneliness crept upon me, a loneliness that was made subtly horrible by intimations—which were never more than such—of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

Massimo Barruti, who has examined “The Night Ocean” in the greatest depth in his book Dim-Remembered Stories: A Critical Study of R. H. Barlow notes that the story is a “textbook example of the extreme sensitiveness and poetic attitude of Barlow’s personality” (102)—the mental degeneration brought by isolation and a too-active imagination causes the protagonist to question reality, even as he populates his nighttime seashore with nameless terrors. Imagine an Innsmouth without any Deep Ones, yet none the less haunting for their absence, to one of sufficient temperament to imagine croaking voices by night, or hear something sinister in the splash of water.

“The Night Ocean” is Barlow at his most Lovecraftian. He never tries to pastiche Lovecraft exactly, or to tie his artist’s strange fears, longing, and imagined horrors into anything from Lovecraft’s nascent Mythos, although readers can certainly draw such connections themselves. Instead, Barlow reproduces the atmosphere and themes of Lovecraft, tries to capture and express the cosmicism—perhaps in homage to his mentor, perhaps as a reflection to how much of an influence Lovecraft had on him. Brian Humphreys explored this in detail in “‘The Night Ocean’ and the Subtleties of Cosmicism” in Lovecraft Studies #30. One thing that Humphreys notes is: “He has left society to be alone, yet feels lonely in his solitude” (18).

Which could well be said of Barlow himself.

While he has achieved a posthumous notoriety as one of Lovecraft’s homosexual friends and correspondents, Barlow does not seem to have expressed his sexuality in his published fiction in any overt manner, or even by obvious metaphor or allegory. There might have been something in “I Hate Queers” that addressed his experience as a closeted homosexual growing up in a very homophobic society, but that piece no longer appears to be extant…and it is worth a little digression to ask what we know about Barlow’s sexuality and how we know it.

Like several of Lovecraft’s young proteges, Barlow became an active homosexual. His homosexuality, however, may not have developed until after Lovecraft’s death; at least, Lovecraft apparently never knew of his young friend’s deviation.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 190

As far as I have been able to determine, de Camp was the first writer to publicly “out” Barlow as homosexual. Lovecraft never mentions this in his letters, nor does E. Hoffmann Price in his memoirs The Book of the Dead mentions Barlow in California, but gives no hint of homosexuality, and none of the memorial pieces after Barlow’s passing mention it. Given the atmosphere of prejudice regarding homosexuality at the time, if any of those who knew Barlow did know about his sexuality, they might have deliberately avoided mention to preserve his memory and reputation. That being said, rumors of Barlow’s sexuality had apparently been circulating for some time within some circles:

Barlow is for sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the late minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead. Any anybody with a mandarin moustache is vulnerable to the kind of flattery, larding I can do very well.
—August Derleth to Donald Wandrei, 21 March [1937]

Derleth had not met either Whitehead or Barlow in person; it is possible that his intuition on Barlow’s sexuality was based entirely on the “I Hate Queers” manuscript and his own experiences. While this is speculative, it could be that the story dealt with a homosexual man who assumed a homophobic persona to better conceal his own sexuality. While this might seem like a stretch, in Barlow’s 1944 autobiographical essay he recalls something of this mindset:

Once I saw a man bring a sailor up to his room and thought of protesting to the management. A blond clerk and a Basque elevator boy—man, rather—caught my eye, and I took them out once or twice to drink at my expense.
—R. H. Barlow, “Autobiography” in O Fortunate Floridian! 411

This autobiographical essay is the most singularly definitive proof we have of Barlow’s sexuality; he very clearly describes his interests, even if he does not record any detailed encounters. When describing his stay with Claire and Groo Beck in California, he wrote:

I could not decide which of the Beck boys to fall in love with and vacillated continually. Claire had a mania for bathing, and I saw him once or twice quite naked. He had a nice prick, uncircumcised. At other times he found excuses to go downstairs from the bath to the living room, dressed only in skin-tight drawers, which also showed him off to advantage. (ibid. 410)

It’s not clear if de Camp read this essay among Barlow’s papers, or whether he picked up the rumors about Barlow’s sexuality. There are many inaccuracies in de Camp’s rendering of Lovecraft and other figures, so it is not beyond the pale to think that de Camp presented rumors as fact. His last word on Barlow in the book is a good example of what he could write without citing any sources:

All this time, however, Barlow energetically pursued his career as a homosexual lover. This was long before Gay Liberation, and Mexico has been if anything less tolerant of sexual deviation than the United States. On January 2, 1951, Barlow killed himself with an overdose of sedatives, because he was being blackmailed for his relations with Mexican youths.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 431-432

This interpretation of Barlow’s death has since become generally accepted, mainly because no one else has come up with a better reason for Barlow’s suicide at about the height of his career. William S. Burroughs who was present in Mexico at the time and commented on Barlow’s suicide does mention that Barlow was “queer”, but does not mention blackmail. Barlow himself asserts in his autobiography that by 1944 he had “a good part of the material things I have desired—money, sex, a small reputation for ability […]” (O Fortunate Floridian! 407) so de Camp’s assertion is not impossible—merely unconfirmed, and perhaps unconfirmable.

Questions of how “out” Barlow was remain essentially unanswered. He did not, for the most part, grow up in any urban area which might have had an active homosexual subculture to be out in; and what can be reconstructed of his adult life shows him very candid about his sexuality but also not, apparently, flaunting it. The earliest possible hint of his burgeoning sexuality might have been an entry in his 1933 diary for May 23:

Back at George’s again, when he & Si arrived, Si went calmly about cleaning up, in a semi-nude condition. It is perhaps indiscreet to record such observations on paper, for my meaning might be misconstrued, but he looked lovely and young and strong and clean…He is a fine boy; the nicest, I believe, I have ever known. Too, he treats me decently, something no other has ever done.

It isn’t clear who “Si” is, although apparently George and Si are neighbors of the 15 year-old Barlow in or around Deland, Florida. If this is an indication of Barlow’s early awareness of his sexuality, it predated his first meeting with Lovecraft in 1934.

Which brings us back, after a long digression, to Barlow and “The Night Ocean.” Because however much of himself Barlow may have poured into the story, the mood he captured regards that which is not simply mysterious, but unknowable. There are secrets which we cannot fathom, no matter how hard we try…and the narrator accepts this as something essential to the very nature of the sea itself:

The night ocean withheld whatever it had nurtured. I shall know nothing more.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

There is much about R. H. Barlow’s life that we will never know; no matter what bits and pieces wash upon the beach for us to find, there are some things we cannot know. Why did he take his own life? Who did de Camp get his information from? Did Lovecraft ever pick up on his young friend’s sexuality? Shapes in the waves as the sun sets, shadows on the water that suggest more than they define. “The Night Ocean” is not a metaphor for Barlow’s life; he could not know when he wrote it in 1935-1936 what the skein of his career would be, in terms of who he would become Barlow had hardly been born yet. Yet it is a very Lovecraftian story…and R. H. Barlow lived, and ultimately died, a very Lovecraftian death.

“The Night Ocean” by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft may be read for free online here.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof

It is, unquestionably, the product of the lost dinosaur’s egg that has somehow, somewhere, mysteriously hatched itself. We believed them to be petrified in the rock, yet in some miraculous way the germ of life was not destroyed.
—Katherine Metcalf Roof, “A Million Years After” in Weird Tales November 1930

It was her only story in Weird Tales, though she wrote for other magazines; and had books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. H. P. Lovecraft might have run across her work before, in Ghost Stories or the Argosy All-Story, though if he did he never mentioned it. Yet what brought her to Lovecraft’s attention, and the reason why he wrote about Katharine Metcalf Roof at all in his letters, is because of this tale—which earned the cover illustration in this issue—and that ties in to events that had occurred long years before, and some of the most important discoveries in the history of early paleontology.

It begins with one of H. P. Lovecraft’s first trips to New York in 1922, where he visited with his friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr:

Monday Long & I explored the American Museum of Natural History—examining it in far greater detail than did Kleiner & I a couple of weeks ago. Long appreciates science & nature more than Kleiner does—he is a marvellous kid, far above the average “amateur journalist” type.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.63-64

While innocuous, it was apparently during this trip that Long or Lovecraft conceived of a story…one that would germinate for some years without being written. Lovecraft would chide his friend:

Grandpa thought he’d write and tell you that he hath just perused Wells’ Thirty Strange Stories! Magnificent plots, but how prosaically handled when one compares them to Machen’s work! I do not think Aepyornis Island anticipates your dinosaur egg story, and advise you to write the latter. Think of the difference—the dinosaur belongs to aeons immemorially remote and unconnected with anything in human experience, whilst the museum-cellar hatching can be handled with a creepiness wholly alien to anything in wells. Your idea is far the stronger, and Grandpa will spank you if you don’t write your story like a nice boy!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 26 Jan 1924, Selected Letters 1.287

The Æpyornis maximus was a large flightless bird native to Madagascar; in “Æpyornis Island” (1895) by H. G. Wells, a fossil hunter collecting some of the eggs of the supposedly extinct animal is surprised when it hatches. Such “living fossil” stories sometimes caught the imagination, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), and dinosaurs in a variety of settings were far from strangers in the pages of Weird Tales.

Yet dinosaur eggs were cutting edge news at the time. In the 1920s, Roy Chapman Andrews carried out the Central Asiatic Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History, including fossil-hunting in the until-then largely inaccessible Gobi desert of Mongolia. In 1923 he discovered the first dinosaur eggs and nests, which in time were shipped back to the museum in New York…there to whet the imaginations of H. P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long.

Sunday we answered advertisements and hoped for the best, but Monday we decided to have some fun whilst life might last, so went to the American Museum of Natural History. Here we lingered over the illuminated bird displays […] and noted in passing the famous dinosaur eggs discovered by the museum’s Mongolian expedition. The latter were not impressive—being the eggs of a very small dinosaur, the ancestor of the later massive species.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.147

Lovecraft encouraged his friend to write the story, but Long did not, whether from lack of interest or fear of plagiarizing Wells’ plot is unknown. The idea sat, unused. In 1928, another visit is recorded:

I rose at noon & went up to Sonny’s to meet our client Mrs. Reed, who was in town Sun. & Mon. She seems quite prepossessing & intelligent. After her departure Sonny & I went to the Nat. Hist. Museum, where we both bought 25¢ dinosaur paperweights.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 May 1928, Letters to Family & Family Friends 676

Perhaps this visit encouraged Lovecraft to think of writing the story himself. In 1928 he recorded in his Commonplace Book, where he jotted down many story ideas: “What hatches from primordial egg.” (36)

Yet Lovecraft & Long did not write the story. Ultimately, Katharine Metcalf Roof did.

This vexed Lovecraft to no end.

The dinosaur’s egg story was simply a minus quantity—but it made me curse, because I thought of that same plot just eight years ago (before any real dinosaurs’ eggs were discovered) & urged kid Belknap to develop it in connexion with his beloved American Museum, within walking distance of which he’s lived all his young life. I went so far as to make inquiries of a sub-curator as to whether dinosaurs probably laid real eggs, or whether they were semi-viviparous like some other reptilia. On being told that they were probably truly oviparous, I renewed my urging that Belknap write the tale, but just about that time he read Wells’ “Æpyornis Island”, & thought that any prehistoric-egg story would just constitute a plagiarism. I told him that such an idea was nonsense—& just then the news came of the finding of the first actual dinosaur eggs by an expedition from Belknap’s own pet museum! Afterward I thought of writing the tale myself, though I always shelved the idea in favour of others. And now comes the miserable hash—so poor that nothing but its idea could possibly have won it first place & cover-design. If only Belknap or I had gone ahead & written a real story on the theme! Heaven knows—I may yet, for the idea is none the less mine because of this independent use—or abuse—of it. But if I do use the primordial egg idea, I may introduce variants. Perhaps it won’t bring forth a dinosaur at all, but instead, a hellish half-man of the pre-human Tsathogguan period!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 245-246

But what makes me maddest about this issue, damn it, is the dinosaur’s egg story given first place and cover design. Rotten—cheap—puerile—yet winning prime distinction because of the subject matter. Now didn’t Grandpa tell a bright young man just eight years ago this month to write a story like that? Didn’t Grandpa go and ask at the American Museum about dinosaur eggs (then known only hypothetically) to see whether they were hard or soft, and didn’t he tell flaming youth to write a nightmare of a yarn about what lumbered about in the museum basement at night? And then didn’t a timid youth go and refuse to do it just because he’d read H. G. Wells’ Æpyornis Island? Fie, Sir! Somebody else wasn’t so afraid of the subject—and now a wretched mess of hash, just on the strength of its theme, gets the place of honour that Young Genoa might have had! Now, Sir, let this teach you not to be so scareful about general similarities in future! You ought to know that the style is the thing, and that subject-matter is relatively immaterial, It’s the development which makes a tale one’s own or not one’s own. Why, damn it, boy, I’ve half a mind to write an egg story myself right now—though I fancy my primal ovoid would hatch out something infinitely more palaeogean and unrecognisable than the relatively commonplace dinosaur.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 17 Oct 1930, Selected Letters 3.186-187

Nor was Lovecraft entirely alone in this opinion of Roof’s tale:

The “dinosaur egg” was truly rotten;—and I don’t blame you for cursing. I, too, would go ahead and use the idea, which could certainly be developed to great advantage by a good writer.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c.24-30 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 255

Was all of this opprobrium appropriate? Did Roof deserve the ruing of Lovecraft & co.? It is hardly unusual for two writers to run across the same basic idea; Lovecraft would run into a similar situation with the revision tale “Winged Death” (1934).

There is some fairness to the criticism. Roof’s story is told with a certain disarming prosaic quality; the thieves speak like characters that wandered in from Black Mask or some other hardboiled pulp, the Irish-American moonshiners have a certain rusticity and more than a touch of ethnic stereotype to them. The story is not at all long, and the mystery is scarcely that, for even though Roof refrains from calling it a dinosaur until near the end, there seems little else that the giant reptile could be—and even if there was, the cover is a bit of a dead giveaway. The entire mechanism by which the egg managed to hatch is left unexplained; the critter remains undiscovered and grows to prodigious size within months. It’s final death by a chance bullet—and its remains destroyed by another chance—are almost deus ex machina. Even the title is a bit of a misnomer—although in this case, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright often changed titles on authors and might have been responsible for that.

If you compare “A Million Years After” with “The Dunwich Horror”—another story which features a large, dangerous, and exotic entity encountering a rural community—some of the reasons the story fails to resonate become apparent. There’s little sense of horror conveyed by the dinosaur, for all that the rural folks are scare of it; the description is at once both too much and insufficient. We never get a clear idea of what species of dinosaur it even is: the creature is reptilian and dwells in a swamp; has a huge body, a snake-like neck with a small head, claws on its feat, spotted skin instead of scales, and…most oddly…runs on its hind legs! While the cover depicts a sauropod, especially the early depictions of such creatures, the combination of features doesn’t quite line up.

The best that could be said about the story is that the bones of a good idea are there. The idea of a living dinosaur of titanic size, extinct for millions of years, has serious legs…as was proved in the film The Lost World (1925), and would be proved again by King Kong (1933), inaugurating a number of monster movies and creature features. Lovecraft himself saw both films, and was impressed by the stop-motion animation that brought the dinosaurs and giant ape to life:

I shall, I think, see “The Lost World” two weeks hence, for it is coming to the Strand at fairly popular prices. This palaeontological phantasy charmed me as a story some fifteen or more years ago, & I have wanted to see it ever since it was presented as a cinema. What a writer Doyle was before he went to seed as a dupe of spirit-mediums! Lost worlds have always been a favourite theme of mine, & I shall treat them more than once before I lay down my fictional pen for ever. The novelette I have mapped out, & which will probably be the next thing I shall write, deals largely with strange vestiges of a past primordial & horrible beyond expression. To me there is no one subject in literature so fascinating as chronological disarrangement—the conquest of time & Nature, & the momentary bringing together of two ages infinities apart.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 23 Sep 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.410

Yes—I shall see “The Lost World” this week, & know I shall enjoy it. Those of our gang who saw it are still marvelling over the impressive cleverness of the mechanical effects.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 4 Oct 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.436

I may do likewise with “King Kong” if its prehistoric life scenes are as good as those in “The Lost World”—which I say in 1925.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 134

Since last writing you I have seen “King Kong” (good mechanical effects) & “Madchen in Uniform.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 30 Jul 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 141

“A Million Years After” has never been reprinted, except in facsimile reprints of Weird Tales. The story’s author Katharine Metcalf Roof remains mostly unknown today, and there are no collections of her pulp fiction. It might well be claimed that she had little impact on weird fiction, and is basically forgotten.

Except…in early 1931, only a couple months after “A Millions Years After” came out, H. P. Lovecraft did begin to write a story that involved a strange survival from hundreds of millions of years in the past, that was awakened by a group of scientists after a long hibernation. There was no egg, and it wasn’t a dinosaur, but as he said to Clark Ashton Smith, it was an utterly alien form of life…

The story was At the Mountains of Madness.

While “A Million Years After” surely isn’t the only inspiration for the story, the timing is such that maybe—just maybe—it was Roof’s handling of the idea of the ancient survival that gave Lovecraft the impetus to put his ideas on paper.

“A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof can be read for free online here.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Sin-Eater” (1895) by Fiona Macleod

Now, we are a scattered band. The Breton’s eyes are slowly turning from the sea, and slowly his ears are forgetting the whisper of the wind around Menhir and Dolmen. The Cornishman has lost his language, and there is now no bond between him and his ancient kin. The Manxman has ever been the mere yeoman of the Celtic chivalry; but even his rude dialect perishes year by year. In Wales, a great tradition survives; in Ireland, a supreme tradition fades through sunset-hued horizons to the edge o’ dark; in Celtic Scotland, a passionate regret, a despairing love and longing, narrows yearly before a bastard utilitarianism which is almost as great a curse to our despoiled land as Calvinistic theology has been and is.
—Fiona Macleod, “From Iona” in The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), 11-12

It was called alternately the Celtic Twilight and the Celtic Revival. The languages and cultures of the Gaelic-speaking peoples of the British Isles was rapidly fading in response to the events of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century; spreading industrialization, transportation and emigration, especially after the Great Famine in Ireland, accelerated the decline of the Gaelic languages in favor of English, which had become the language of government, literature, and trade in the United Kingdom—and, before the breakup of the British Empire, throughout the world.

Against this decline rose varied movements; some aimed to preserve and promulgate the declining language and customs, such as the gorsedds in Wales, while the Irish Literary Revival in the late 19th/early 20th century sought to raise awareness of Irish literature and writers. Common cause was made between Gaelic speakers based on mutual interest in languages, lore, and preservation of rapidly-disappearing ways of life. The Celtic Revival filtered across the Atlantic to the United States in many forms; W. B. Yeats, Æ (George William Russell), reprints of James Macpherson’s Ossian and the novels of Sir Walter Scot, the fantasies of George Macdonald and Lord Dunsany, the weird tales of Arthur Machen…and, though often forgotten today, the weird works of Scottish writer William Sharp, who also wrote as Fiona Macleod.

Sharp was already a relatively successful author whose books of poetry and realistic novels in the 1880s had progressed to the point where by 1890-1891 he could support himself full-time as a writer and editor. He and his wife went on a trip to Italy, where he found a muse in the form of Mrs. Edith Wingate Rinder (Alaya 125), and the inspiration for a new literary persona.

Anyone might than have observed something different about Sharp. His creative voice was stronger, all his work more passionate and vital. And those who knew him intimately knew also that it was in the years immediately following his return from Italy that Sharp began, quietly but steadfastly, to produce the work later to be attributed to the pen of Fiona Macleod.
—Flavia Alaya, William Sharp—”Fiona Macleod” 1855-1905 (1970), 97

Sharp had previously tried on other literary voices, H. P. Siwaärmill, W. H. Brooks, and COuntess Ilse von Jaromar, but works under these names failed to gather attention. Fiona Macleod was created not just as a female voice for Sharp’s fiction, but a distinctly Scottish one; Sharp was at this point becoming more aware of himself as a Scot, and of the importance of Scottish Gaelic and folklore. It also provided an outlet for Sharp’s more occult leanings; he was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and an associate of Wiliam Butler Yeats on the “Celtic Mysteries” project, which involved trance workings (Talking to the Gods, 23, 36), and “second sight” and prophecy would find their way into Macleod’s work (Alaya 190).

The degree to which Sharp identified with Fiona Macleod has been a point among his biographers, up to and including his wife, who quoted from one of his letters:

…I can write out of my heart in a way I could not do as William Sharp, and indeed I could not do so if I were the woman Fiona Macleod is supposed to be, unless veiled in scrupulous anonymity…

This rape sense of oneness with nature, this cosmic ecstasy and elation, this wayfaring along the extreme verges of the common world, all this is so wrought up with the romance of life that I could not bring myself to expression by my outer self, insistent and tyrannical as that need is. … My truest self, the self who is below all other selves, and my most intimate life and joys and sufferings, thoughts, emotions and dreams, must find expression, yet I cannot save in this hidden way.
William Sharp (Fiona Macleod) A Memoir (1910) 227

The ruse was more than skin-deep; from 1894 onwards he maintained two simultaneous and distinct writing careers, one as Sharp and the other as Macleod, answering letters “in character,” having his sister write out manuscripts in a woman’s handwriting, mailing letters to himself from “Fiona Macleod,” careful that he and his wife would always talk about “Fiona” as if she was a separate entity to avoid a slip, etc. The stress of the dual existence increased during his later years; Sharp forbore applying for a civil list pension because it would require revealing his authorship…and there may have been additional reasons.

Terry L. Meyers in The Sexual Tensions of William Sharp (1996), traces some of the subtle issues of gender identity and sexuality that Sharp expressed in his letters and fiction. A fierce advocate for gender equality, Meyers also traces themes of possible homosexual and transgender thought in his work and affiliations with other Victorian writers. Full expression or exploration of these feelings would have been difficult or impossible; Oscar Wilde being a prime example of the consequences of being found out. It is perhaps notable that in 1898 Sharp served on the Free Press Defence Committee formed to defend Havelock Ellis’ Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Inversion from prosecution for obscenity (Meyers 18).

While it is impossible at this remove to say definitely whether Sharp was homosexual, transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, or somewhere else on the spectrum, the combination of a strong feminine voice and a focus on authentic Scottish Gaelicisms came together to acclaim in the novels Pharais (1894), The Mountain Lovers (1895), and Green Fire (1896) to positive critical appraisal—sometimes eclipsing that of Sharp under his own name. Yet for all of Macleod’s literary output, the collection of short stories The Sin-Eater and Other Tales and Episodes (1895), particularly the title story, has come to be the most impactful—albeit in a way that Sharp/Macleod could not have foreseen, unless they really did have the Sight.

Alaya describes The Sin-Eater stories as “semi-autobiographical tales”; and there is in them a combination of authentic folklore, realistic portrayals of the lives of the Scottish people (warts and all), and perhaps above all a strong focus on Scottish Gaelic language. Macleod captures not just the somewhat stereotypical cadence of a way of thought and speaking, but makes knowledge of Gaelic a point of identity. Many phrases and a few special passages are in Gaelic, often with translation but some left au natural with only the context to guide the English reader. Yet it is telling when it is written:

The man had used the English when first he spoke, but as though mechanically. Supposing that he had not been understood, he repeated his question in the Gaelic.

After a minute’s silence the old woman answered him in the native tongue, but only to put a question in return.

“I am thinking it is a long time since you have been in Iona?”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater” in The Best Psychic Stories (1920), 127

Frank Belknap Long gifted a copy of The Best Psychic Stories to H. P. Lovecraft c.1923; the editor was Joseph Lewis French, an industrious editor and anthologist developed a reputation for weird anthologies beginning with Great Ghost Stories (1918) and The Best Ghost Stories (1919), and would go on to edit several more anthologies in that vein in the 1920s. The introduction was by Dorothy Scarborough, PhD., author of The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). French doesn’t mention Fiona Macleod’s alter ego, although the secret had been out a decade or so at that point; Scarborough doesn’t mention it in her brief introduction either, although her 1917 opus refers to Macleod as “Sharp’s other literary self” (65).

It isn’t clear if Lovecraft himself knew that Sharp was Macleod at that point—but it had apparently crossed his radar at a particularly good time for a little story he was working on titled “The Rats in the Walls:”

That bit of gibberish which immediately followed the atavistic Latin was not pithecanthropoid. The first actual ape-cry was the “ungl”. What the intermediate jargon is, is perfectly good Celtica bit of venomously vituperative phraseology which a certain small boy ought to know; because his grandpa, instead of consulting a professor to get a Celtic phrase, found a ready-made one so apt that he lifted it bodily from The Sin-Eater, by Fiona McLeod [sic], in the volume of Best Psychic Stories which Sonny himself generously sent! I thought you’d note that at once—but youth hath a crowded memory. Anyhow, the only objection to the phrase is that it’s Gaelic instead of Cymric as the south-of-England locale demands. But as—with anthropology—details don’t count. Nobody will ever stop to note the difference.
H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 8 Nov 1923, Selected Letters 1.258

Scottish and Irish Gaelic are Goidelic (Q-Celtic) languages; Welsh (Cymric) is P-Celtic. Different branches of the same linguistic family tree, but not mutually comprehensible. Lovecraft had borrowed a Scottish Gaelic phrase and put it where a Welsh phrase should be. As it happened, Lovecraft was correct. No one noticed the slip when the story was published in Weird Tales in March 1924. However, when the story was reprinted in the June 1930 issue, it came under the eye of a Celtophile who had made some effort to learn Irish Gaelic—Robert E. Howard of Texas. As Lovecraft later told the story:

As for the languages represented in the atavistic passage—I don’t recall including Sanscrit [sic], though I did lift a sentence of Celtic (of which I know not a single word) from another story, “The Sin-Eater”, by “Fiona McLeod” (William Sharp). This sentence, incidentally, was what brought me into correspondence with Robert E. Howard. It was—since I swiped it from a Scottish story—a Gaelic specimen, whereas of course the Celtic language of southern Britain was Cymric. R.E.H.—as an expert Celtic antiquarian—noticed the discrepancy, & thought I had adopted a minor theory that a Gaelic wave had preceded the coming of the Cymri to Britannia. He wrote Wright on the subject, & Wright forwarded the letter to me—whereupon I felt obliged to drop a line to the mighty Conan exposing my own ignorance & confessing to my rather inept borrowing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, 2 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 47

Much as I admired him, I had no correspondence with him till 1930—for I was never a guy to butt in on people. In that year her read the reprint of my Rats in the Walls and instantly spotted the bit of harmless fakery whereby I had lifted a Celtic phrase (for use as an atavistic exclamation) from a footnote to an old classic—The Sin-Eater, by Fiona Macleod (William Sharp). He didn’t realise the source of the phrase, but his sharp eye for Celtic antiquities told him it didn’t quite fit—being a Gaelic (not Cymric) expression assigned to a South British locale. I myself don’t know a word of any Celtic tongue, and never fancied anybody could spot the incongruity. Too charitable to suspect me of ignorant appropriation, he came to the conclusion that I followed a now-discredited theory whereby the Gaels were supposed to have preceded the Cymri in England—and wrote Satrap Pharnabazus [Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright] a long and scholarly letter on the subject. Farny passed this on to me—and I couldn’t rest easy until I had set the author right. Hence I dropped REH a line confessing my ignorance and telling him that I had merely picked a phrase with the right meaning from a note to a Scottish story while perfectly well aware that the language of Celtic South-Britain was really somewhat different.
—H. P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, 5 Jul 1936, Selected Letters 5.277

Howard’s letters show that in 1929 and early 1930 his reading was turning increasingly to Irish history, with long letters to Harold Preece and Tevis Clyde Smith on Celtic history and language. It was perhaps this focus which made Howard so sensitive to Lovecraft’s use of language in “The Rats in the Walls”—as given in his letter to Wright:

As to the climax, the maunderings of the maddened victim is like a sweep of horror down the eons, dwindling back and back to be finally lost in those grisly mists of world-birth where the mind of man refuses to follow. And I note from the fact that Mr. Lovecraft has his character speaking Gaelic instead of Cymric, in denoting the Age of the Druids, that he holds to Lhuyd’s theory as to the settling of Britain by the Celts.

This theory is not generally agreed to, but I scarcely think that it has ever been disproved, and it was upon this that my story “The Lost Race” was based — that the Gaelic tribes preceded the Cymric peoples into Britain, by way of Ireland, and were later driven out by them. Baxter, the highly learned author of Glossario Antiquae Britanniae upholds this theory on the grounds that the Brigantes, supposed to be the first Celtic settlers in Britain, were unacquainted with the “p” sound, which was not used in Britain until the advent of the Brythonic or Cymric peoples. According to this, the Brigantes were a Goidhelic tribe, and Lhuyd’s point seems proven.

Personally, I hold to the theory of Cymric precedence, and believe that Brythonic tribes inhabited, not only Britain and Scotland before the coming of the Gaels, but Ireland as well. The blond Britons appear to me to be a closer branch of the ancient Aryan stock, the Gaels arriving later, and being mixed with some Turanian or Mediterranean blood. But every man is entitled to his own view and a writer has the right to use any and all theories, no matter how conflicting, in his stories. I may write a story one day upholding a certain theory of science, letters, anthropology or what-not, and the next day, a story upholding a theory directly opposite. A fiction writer, whose job is to amuse and entertain, should give all theories equal scope and justice. But I’m taking up too much of your time.
—Robert E. Howard to Farnsworth Wright, Collected Letters 2.42-43

Howard’s specific source for this argument appears to be O’Donovan and O’Reilly’s Irish-English Dictionary (1864 ed.). We know Howard had this volume, as he cites in a subsequent letter to Lovecraft (CL2.70), and it seems to be the source for some of his Irish language comments in prior letters (cf. CL2.7, 20-21, 22-23). This passage in particular jives with the content of Howard’s letter:

Mr. Baxter (in Glossario Antiquæ Birtanniæ, p. 90) remarks, that the oldest Brigantes, whom he esteems the first inhabitants of Britain, never used in their language the sound of the letter p, which was afterwards introduced by the Belgic Britains. If the old Brigantes were really of the first inhabitants of Britain, it would follow, that they were a part of the Guidelian, or Gaulish colony, which went over to Ireland, and whom Mr. Lhuyd evidently proves to have been the first inhabitants of all that part of Great Britain which now comprehends England and Wales.
“Remarks on the Letter P” in An Irish-English Dictionary 399-400)

Lovecraft’s response is now lost, but that exchange began a correspondence that would last until Robert E. Howard took his own life in 1936; Lovecraft would still mourn his Texas friend until his own death in 1937. It is notable that while the first couple of letters are lost their collected correspondence, A Means to Freedom begins with both men deep into British Celtic history, and their wide-ranging letters spin out from there—but this period would always inform Lovecraft’s image of Robert E. Howard as a scholar and enthusiast for Gaelic language and culture. It is possible that Lovecraft’s high opinion of Howard helped overcome Lovecraft’s lingering prejudices regarding the Irish and “Celtic peoples,” who in the early 20th century still faced racial and ethnic discrimination.

No where in the surviving letters do Howard and Lovecraft discuss William Sharp or Fiona Macleod. The first time that Lovecraft acknowledges Sharp and Macleod as the same individual is in 1929:

The lines of William Sharp (who, by the way, has written some remarkable weird material under the pseudonym of “Fiona MacLeod” [sic]) are highly potent despite their simplicity. I have followed the draining of Lacus Nemorensis with great interest, though without much hope that anything valuable will be discovered on Caligula’s galleys.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 15 Apr 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 57

Lovecraft refers to “The Lake of Nemi” in Sharp’s volume of poetry Sospiri di Roma (1891)—which is, coincidentally, a product of the same trip to Italy in which Fiona Macleod was born in Sharp’s mind. Benito Mussolini had begun a project to drain Lake Nemi (Lacus Nemorensis), which Sharp had visited. So sometime between 1923 and 1929, Lovecraft discovered that Fiona Macleod was William Sharp…and had read enough of Macleod’s fiction to praise it, if only briefly. It is a pity that Lovecraft doesn’t expand on the subject at any length in his letters; he doesn’t even mention Macleod or Sharp in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and Lovecraft could scarcely have faulted Sharp for using Macleod as a pseudonym, considering Lovecraft had written under the name Elizabeth Berkeley himself.

It may be worthwhile to look at the infamous borrowing in context:

Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do! … ’Sblood, thou stinkard, I’ll learn ye how to gust … wolde ye swynke me thilke wys? … Magna Mater! Magna Mater! … Atys … Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodaun … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa! … Ungl … ungl … rrrlh … chchch ….
H. P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls”

“But, Andrew Blair, I will say this: when you fair abroad, Droch caoidh ort! and when you go upon the water, Gaoth gun direadh ort! Ay, ay, Anndra-mhic-Adam, Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodann … agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa!”†

† Droch caoidh ort! “May a fatal accident happen to you” (lit. “bad moan on you”). Gaoth gun direadh ort! “May you drift to your drowning” (lit. “wind without direction on you”). Dia ad aghaidh, etc., “God against thee and in thy face … and may a death of woe be yours … Evil and sorrow to the and thine!”
—Fiona Macleod, “The Sin-Eater,” The Best Psychic Stories 146

Delapore’s speech devolves from contemporary English (“Curse you, Thornton”) to Elizabethan English (“‘Sblood, thou stinkard”) to Old English (“wolde ye swynke” i.e. “would you belabor me like this?”) to Latin (“Magna Mater!” i.e “Great Mother”) to Gaelic (“Dia ad aghaidh”) and finally prehuman speech (“Ungl.”) As Lovecraft had no knowledge of Scottish Gaelic, he accidentally copied the spelling error (“aodaun” for “aodann”) in The Best Psychic Stories version of the text.

In Macleod’s “The Sin-Eater,” the speech is given not so much as a curse but as a deliberate insult by the eponymous Sin-Eater Neil Ross who is already, though he knows it not, doomed. There is something of a parallel to the two speeches in that regard: both men who speak it are destined to be consumed by madness, driven to their fate by old family sins and quite literal consumption. While it is probably too much to say that “The Sin-Eater” inspired “The Rats in the Walls,” it is likely that Lovecraft might have been struck by the parallels…and the bit of luck that put such an appropriate choice of phrase in his way.

The phrase and the story can only exist in the wider context of the Celtic Twilight, and of Sharp’s assumption of the literary identity of Fiona Macleod; the very focus on Celtic languages and culture which was the focus of Sharp’s purpose in writing and publishing as Macleod in turn directly led to Lovecraft’s correspondence with Robert E. Howard, based on his awareness of and interest in Celtic languages and history.

An odd legacy for Fiona Macleod—yet perhaps oddly appropriate.

“The Sin-Eater” by Fiona Macleod can be read online for free here.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)

Old Keziah, he reflected, might have had excellent reasons for living in a room with peculiar angles; for was it not through certain angles that she claimed to have gone outside the boundaries of the world of space we know?
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a feminist, humanist, social reformer, lecturer and writer. She was born in Connecticut, and spent much of her early life in Providence, Rhode Island, H. P. Lovecraft’s home town. Like Lovecraft she had limited formal education, but was a prodigious autodidact. As with many of the more famous writers of his day, Lovecraft’s brush with Gilman was one-sided: his letters attest to an awareness of her work and as an individual, but her letters and diaries do not mention Lovecraft. His work, limited mostly to the pulps and the amateur press, either did not rise to her notice or did not merit comment.

At one point, however, there might have been a stronger connection:

“The Yellow Wall Paper” is the sole fictional effort of the feminist & social worker Charlotte Perkins Gilman—whom, by the way, my mother knew in youth. It is a most insidiously potent tale of the aura of madness, & was included by William Dean Howells in his anthology of American Short Story masterpieces.
H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 11 Jan 1927, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 31

My mother knew her well-since as plain Charlotte Perkins she used to be governess in the home of some friends of ours. Later her first husband was the Providence artist Stetson. She always had an affected, eccentric streak of self-conscious intellectuality.
H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708

In 1883, Charlotte Anna Perkins was living in Providence, Rhode Island. She had been working as a teacher or tutor, and recounts:

I gave drawing lessons to a boy and a girl, the girl died, and the lonely little brother begged to have me come and stay with him. So I tried governessing, for ten weeks, and learned more about the servant question in that time than most of us ever find out.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography 69

According to her letters, the clients were Dr. and Mrs. Jackson of Providence; the boy was Eddie. The 1880 census lists a Walter Marsh Jackson, physician; wife, Amelia (Amy) Jackson, daughter Isabel Jackson (died 1883, age 13), and son Edward P. Jackson. The Jacksons are buried in Swan Point Cemetery, where H. P. Lovecraft and the Phillips family are also buried.

Charlotte Perkins’ ten weeks as governess of Eddie began on 16 July 1883, and part of it was spent in Maine. Sarah Susan Phillips (1857-1921) in 1881 was living at the family home, 194 Angell St. The Jacksons are the most likely candidates for a mutual acquaintance with the future Mrs. Lovecraft, but Gilman’s letters of the period do not reference a Mrs. Phillips or her sisters—so the connection is tenuous. It is interesting to note that there are two surviving letters sent by Gilman from 207 Angell St., which is less 100 yards from the Phillips’ home, so it is not impossible that the then Charlotte Perkins and Susie Lovecraft might have met on the street, or had other acquaintances in common at the time.

Their lives diverged. In May 1884, Charlotte Perkins married her first husband, the Providence artist Charles Stetson. Their daughter Katharine Stetson was born eleven months later in 1885. Her periodic depressions deepened after the birth, and in April 1887 she broke down. Women’s medicine at the time was dominated by sexist attitudes; she submitted for a period to the “rest cure” of neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, but…well, as she puts it so elegantly:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia-and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live a domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long a I lived.” This was in 1897.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

I then, using the remnant of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work againwork, the normal life of every human being; work , in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite; ultimately recovering some measure of power.

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (1913)

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was actually written in 1890, and finally published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, and there is a degree of myth-making in some of Gilman’s later claims about the story, as explored by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow-Wallpaper” (2010), but that is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that by the time Lovecraft first mentions the story in his letters in 1926, “The Yellow Wallpaper” had already been established as a story of note.

Your plan for a weird bibliography is splendid, & I hope to see it carried into effect. Such a thing ought to include not only books but isolated tales in magazines as well; since some veritable masterpieces have never got beyond that form. Single tales in anthologies, also, (like Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in Howells’ collection) merit citation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 24 Dec 1926, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 26

It’s not clear when Lovecraft first read the story, but starting in 1925 he began an intensive course of reading weird fiction to write his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), so it is possible he read it during that period. The anthology he mentions is The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology (1920), edited by William Dean Howells. In his introduction, Howells writes of Gilman’s story:

It wanted at least two generations to freeze our young blood with Mrs. Perkins Gilman’s story of The Yellow Wall Paper, which Horace Scudder (then of The Atlantic) said in refusing it that it was so terribly good that it ought never to be printed. But terrible and too wholly dire it was, I could not rest until I had corrupted the editor of The New England Magazine into publishing it. Now that I have got it into my collection here, I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time that it was too terribly good to be printed. (vii)

Lovecraft’s response is withering:

Am surprised that Howells was concerned in a venture like this, since ordinarily he was old-womanishly opposed to the really gruesome & terrible. He made an absurd apology for including Mrs. Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in an anthology he edited.
H. L. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Sep 1927, Essential Solitude 1.37

In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft is generally positive about “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them. Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem “Childe Roland”; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Holmes, the subtle novel Elsie Venner; F. Marion Crawford, “The Upper Berth” and a number of other examples; Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, “The Yellow Wall Paper”; whilst the humourist W. W. Jacobs produced that able melodramatic bit called “The Monkey’s Paw”. […]

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in “The Yellow Wall Paper”, rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.

Lovecraft’s interpretation is fair, but curious. Many readings, especially today, focus more on the “rest cure” aspect, and the suggestion of postpartum depression. The women’s horrors, as it were. Lovecraft’s reading focuses on the subtle suggestions that Gilman never makes explicit: why has this colonial manse gone untenanted so long? Who is the woman she sees in the wallpaper?—and comes to his own conclusion. He stops short of suggesting a haunting, and it seems he was aware that the focus was on the slowly devolving mindset of the protagonist, the creeping psychological horror—and writing to August Derleth a few years later, when Derleth was working on his thesis “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890”:

“The Yellow Wall Paper” is a great tale, but to me it lacks just that final touch of “outsideness” necessary to make the top grade […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.265

My stand on cosmic outsideness, however, is likely to remain unchanged; for I feel that this element is eminently necessary to produce a macabre thrill of the very first water. “The Yellow Wall Paper” & “Shadows on the Wall” are excellent of their kind, but the sensation they produce is a tame & secondary one as compared with that produced by “The Willows”, “The White People”, “The House of Sounds”, or even (in my estimation, at least) “The Yellow Sign.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.268

Derleth differed:

The weird tale can, I believe, be divided into two rough classes—those hinting of cosmic evil and horror—and those only vaguely suggesting something beyond, something beyond the surface, the appearance, and range all the way from vague fright to utmost horror. You prefer the former group, to which we would according to this grouping, parcel such tales as The Yellow Sign, your Cthulhu et al[.] tales, the White People, etc.; I prefer the latter group, in which fall Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman’s tales, your own Rats in the Walls, Strange High House, my Panelled Room, etc., The Monkey’s Paw, The Yellow Wall Paper. And so on. The vast majority of the first-raters belong in this latter class.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 2 Nov 1931, Essential Solitude 2.402

However, Derleth did take Lovecraft’s reading to heart:

The Yellow Wall Paper is the story of a woman who goes mad from the effect of hideously yellow wall paper in the room where she is convalescing, and where a mad-woman was once confined. The narrator, who is being urged to fight off the delusion that there is a woman trying to escape from behind the wall paper, enters gradually and subtly into the character of the imagined person; in reality this character, composed of forces left behind by the late madwoman, enters into her. Her husband does not realize the effect of the wall paper, nor does he regard the recent presence of the madwoman as significant. The story rises to a climax with startling subtlety, and the delineation of the approaching madness is classic. […]

There is something shudderingly horrible in the thought of this woman chronicling day by day her approaching madness, and remaining stolidly unaware of it all the time. Horror lies between the lines here, and the reader must read it in to get the full force of the story. […]

There is a suggestion of the “outside” [in The Yellow Sign by Robert W. Chambers”], which neither The Yellow Wall Paper nor The Upper Berth [by F. Marion Crawford] carried […]
—August Derleth, “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890” in The Ghost (1945) 8-9

Neither Lovecraft nor Derleth denied the importance or the efficacy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a weird tale; Derleth himself borrowed heavily from Gilman when he wrote “The Panelled Room” (written 1930, published 1933). Both counted it an important tale worth mentioning in their respective overviews of weird fiction—and in this they were perhaps a little ahead of the game; while some classify “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a Gothic story, Edith Birkhead in The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921) does not list it; neither does Dorothy Scarborough in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). Both those women focused on supernatural horror, and as Lovecraft pointed out— “The Yellow Wallpaper” isn’t quite that. The horror is more vague, indeterminate, and we never quite know how much is real and how much is in the narrator’s mind.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is weird. So what influence did it have on Lovecraft?

In terms of direct influence, it’s hard to say. There are definitely elements of “The Yellow Wallpaper” that jive with Lovecraft’s pet themes: the question of sanity, the descent into madness, the particular focus on angles— “The Dreams in the Witch-House” might owe at least a little debt to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Lovecraft himself, however, never offers any insights in this line. Savvy readers might point out that Gilman’s hotel in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or Walter Gilman in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” which could be glancing references, but aside from the obvious pun in the case of Innsmouth, “Gilman” is also an old established New England name—Lovecraft might have been inspired by her, or not. He is silent on the matter.

Gilman’s novel Herland was not published until long after both their deaths, so from Lovecraft’s perspective, she had only a single weird tale to her credit:

In the case of general authors who have produced a little weird material, one has to use one’s own judgment. I would, in such cases, ask (a) how typical of this author is his weird stuff, & (b) all apart from this, how important is this weird material? […] I’d admit Mrs. Gilman for her one weird tale—”The Yellow Wall Paper”—because of its great importance, though it is wholly non-typical of her.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 29 Dec 1934, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 396

There is little left to say. Lovecraft’s final word on Gilman concerns notice of her death. Suffering from breast cancer, she chose to take her own life with chloroform.

Too bad Mrs. Gilman bumped herself off—I was told of it in N Y, though I haven’t reached Aug. 17 as yet in my reading-up of back newspapers. […] Well—may she rest in peace!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708

There are few enough women mentioned in Supernatural Horror in Literature; whether this reflected Lovecraft’s particular reading or any unspoken sexism on his part is unclear. Yet he went out of his way more than once in both that public essay and in his private letters to champion Charlotte Perkins Gilman for her weird tale “The Yellow Wallpaper”…and who can say that Gilman’s depiction of creeping madness did not strike a chord in Lovecraft, if the memory of the story stayed with him all those years?

“The Yellow Wallpaper” can be read for free online here.

Thanks to Donovan Loucks and Dave Goudsward for their help.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).